Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 24, 2007

Seeing Red

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:00 pm

Saturday, Mar. 24, 2007

  It’s easy to be lulled into the belief that spring is all about the green.  It is the presence of green, after all, that indicates plant growth and new life and all that.  The very word GREEN comes from a Teutonic root which means “to grow.”  What in the world, you may ask, is a “Teutonic root?” Well, I’m not entirely sure myself, so maybe I should shift to another color before things get out of control.  There’s a lot to say about the color green, and we’ll get back to it later.  Let’s look for a little red instead.

  In the dull brown landscape of very early spring, a bright color like red stands out like a beacon.  Take the fire-red of the male Red-wing Blackbird’s epaulettes or the Orangish red of the male Cardinal, for instance. Though the red-wings have always been here, Cardinals were not always a part of our local scene.  They were once strictly a southern species and they have slowly spread north over the past century. 

  Robins are also considered a red breasted beacon of spring, but the “red, red, robin” is neither red nor a beacon of spring.  Their breast color would qualify more as a rich deep rust hue and the first robin of the year can usually be seen on January 1st since many stay all winter.  In a P.C. world (Proper Color) the familiar song lyrics would be changed to “when the rusty robin comes bob bob bobbing along.” Although, if we start doing that we’d have to change one of the “Bobs” to “Roberta” in order to P.C. the lyrics.  Let’s not go there. 

  This time of year, the male robins are truly “bob, bob, bobbing” at each other.  They are fighting like gamecocks for the rights to your front yard.  Chest to red…er, rust, chest they bang into each other like football players and jump high into the air.  After a few belly bumps, the match is decided and the lesser bird vacates the territory. It doesn’t take much to get them fighting – I guess any bird with the scientific name of Turdus is bound to have a chip on their shoulder.

  Today, I saw a Woolly Bear Caterpillar inching his way along the pavement.  For the sake of this discussion, the beet red of this fuzzy caterpillar is worthy of mention.  Wooly Bears have become noteworthy for the common belief that they predict winter weather. Supposedly, the size of the red band around their middle (the ends are black) is the key to their weather wisdom: the wider the red band, the colder the winter.  Like many beliefs that are common, this just ain’t so.  About half of the autumn Woolly Bears will indicate a mild winter, while the other half will predict severe conditions. So, those humans who find themselves among the believers will find their caterpillar based predictions to be 50% correct. This is called guessing, by the way.

  What is incredible about this hirsute little beast is that it survives the winter – any kind of winter – as a larvae.  It curls up under the leaf litter or under a log and hibernates through the cold season.  Occasionally it awakes in mid winter to take a stroll and change den sites.  I saw one out this past January when the thermometer read 17 degrees.  It was walking on the snow with its sixteen little feet and looking only slightly bemused.  Pumped full of natural anti-freeze, it was unaffected by cold. I can’t confirm it, but I do believe it stopped to make a snow butterfly.

  The bulk of winter now past, he was back out looking for some fresh Plantain or Dandelion shoots to eat.  After a few hardy meals, he’ll be ready to spin a cocoon, pupate, and emerge this summer as a fawn brown moth. This transformation even includes a change of name. The adult is called an Isabella Tiger Moth.

  Although there are plenty of other examples I could point to, a look skyward will reveal a great final choice.  The Red Maples are now flowering.  The branches erupted this week with hundreds of red pom-poms.  These are the flower clusters. Each cluster consists of a couple dozen flowers erupting out of red scales.

  The roots (not the Teutonic ones) have been holding the rich sugar reserves all winter in preparation for this time.  This tree manages to bring us tinges of red all year long through its leaf stems, autumn leaves and winter buds.  Soon these flowers will produce thousands of seeds.  Red is the reason for the season.






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