By Ted Williams
Now, mostly east of the Rockies, cecropias—the biggest and, by almost any standard, most beautiful moths in North America—are struggling from their cocoons and pumping hardening fluid into their wings, which can measure almost seven inches across. The corpulent body is red plaid, the wings intricately patterned with white and black eyespots and borders, and rich shades of reds, chestnuts, and browns. The species is not uncommon, especially in suburbia, where there's an abundance of small trees, and where white-footed mice, the insect's main predators, are less abundant. So why haven't you seen a cecropia? For one thing, they fly swiftly and mostly at night; for another, they don't live much longer than a week. Sex is the single mission of an adult—it doesn't even feed. With his large, feathery antennae a male can detect and home in on female pheromones from at least a mile away. To see an adult up close, find a few of the caterpillars; they're light green with head bristles and red, yellow, and blue warts—and they'll be feeding on leaves of maple, cherry, plum, willow, apple, alder, birch, and dogwood. Keep them in a cool, shaded, screened-in area, and supply them with fresh leaves from the tree you found them on. They'll spin their cocoons in autumn and emerge the following May. Don't wait too long to release the adults.
Of all night creatures, none has stirred more human hearts, communicated more eloquently the magic of the springtime woods, given rise to more superstition, and inspired more bad poetry than the whip-poor-will. So cavernous is the mouth of this stocky, bewhiskered insect eater that farmers of yore theorized that the bird clamped onto the teats of she goats, draining them of milk. Hence the family name goatsucker. Some goatsuckers, including the whip-poor-will, are also called nightjars, but impoverished is the soul “jarred” by the sweet, clear song. Listen for it after dusk in open forests and meadow edges of the East or in wooded canyons of the Southwest. In perhaps the most wretched of all whip-poor-will verse, Harry Graham (who didn't understand that the bird doesn't sing on the wing) wrote: “You can hear the desperate song of the lonely fowl in flight / As perambulations and melancholy becomes the fowl's delight.” Young women used to pay careful attention to whip-poor-wills. A single vocalization of whip-poor-will meant the listener wouldn't get married for at least a year; two meant she would die a spinster. Fortunately, whip-poor-wills are almost always more persistent, offering as many as a thousand repetitions without respite.
In brushlands, grasslands, and deserts of the American West, mid-spring is birthing time for the pronghorn, an ancient ice-age survivor also called “antelope” (although it isn't one). The doe, which also has horns, literally drops her fawns (usually two) from a standing position. Four days later they can outrun a human. Pronghorns, not closely related to any other ungulate, are uniquely North American. Once they were at least as numerous as bison, on which they depended, eating the forbs that flourished in grazed-over areas. The fastest land mammal on earth after the cheetah, the pronghorn apparently evolved to deal with the cheetahs that were once native to this continent. We almost lost the pronghorn to unrestricted market hunting. But organized sportsmen and state game and fish agencies have brought about such dramatic recovery that the species is now safely hunted throughout most of its range.
If you live in the eastern half of the United States, you may meet a stinkpot any day now as it plods up from a pond or dawdling stream to lay eggs. The stinkpot—one of the continent's smallest, least seen, and most abundant turtles—is apt to make a lasting impression in two ways: first with its sharp jaws, then with the malodorous yellow fluid that oozes from under its carapace. All things considered, perhaps you'd prefer not to pick this turtle up. But, as you admire the stinkpot from afar, note the algae sprouting on the smooth, high-domed carapace—evidence of the animal's reluctance to leave the water. Now that you've seen this northernmost species of musk turtle out of its element, look for it in the water at any season. Poor swimmers, stinkpots plod slowly over the bottom, occasionally stretching their long, yellow-striped necks to snatch crayfish, clams, snails, aquatic insects, fish eggs, minnows, tadpoles, and carrion.
© 2004 National Audubon Society
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