Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Birds, Bees and Cicadas

I have been thinking alot about insects because of the emergence of the Brood II cicadas.

I write for several blogs and when describing these large, ugly members of the locust family I tended toward the science-fiction type of invasion angle -- THEY CAME FROM BROOD II!! -- and the like. This is how most people look at these insects.

Cicadas are out in the late-summer heat every year. MH hears these annual cicadas and is reminded of how he felt with summer ending and the return to school looming.

These cicadas, however, have spent most of the past 17 years evolving from eggs to nymphs until the 17th year when, after the soil has reached 63 degrees F, they climb out of the ground, shed their skins and then fly to a tree and begin calling. Even though we are seeing them for the first time, it is really near the end of their lives. The males will mate and die. The females will mate, cut a slit in a tree, lay their eggs in it and then die. The eggs will hatch and the young will drop to the ground and go below for another 17 years.

Cicadas mating, June 2013 by Margo D. Beller
Pretty mundane stuff. These cicadas don't sting like wasps, they don't eat your plants like locusts and they don't bite you like a mosquito. They are ugly, but a lot of insects are ugly. Unlike a lot of ugly insects like the praying mantis, it's not going to pick off bad bugs in your garden. It will just mate and die and leave its crunchy carcass on the ground for you to brush off or your dog to eat, as I saw the dog of a friend do as a few of the cicadas fell on her deck. There are even recipes and restaurants serving cicadas, if you are into that.

What had alarmed me at first was the noise. All those thousands, millions of cicadas making their call, sounding like one of those cheesy sci-fi sound effects for a spaceship. Not too far away from my town, in Morris Township, NJ, I had gone to one of my favorite birding places and barely heard the birds for the din. In my town there were none of these cicadas calling until only the last week, and the noise was certainly less than that of the lawn service mowers or the dogs barking from their backyards.

I wondered about that. Why weren't there more of these cicadas closer to my home? MH pointed out that 18 years ago - it seems like yesterday - a single crack in a bearing wall led to 10 months of contracted workmen inside and outside the house. These workmen at one point had ripped up the entire lawn to do work on the house foundation and then, since it would need new grass anyway, put in an underground sprinkler system.
June 2013, by RE Berg-Andersson

MH thought that disruption 18 years ago wiped out the eggs of that brood of Brood II cicadas. OK, I said, but that doesn't explain the area around our house.

But perhaps it does. I live in a part of suburbia that does not tear down the old houses, as is the case in other towns, but builds on. Building on, making a house two or three times the size, requires digging out the land and putting in a new foundation. If enough people did that, perhaps they, too, inadvertently wiped out the cicadas.

Or maybe it was Hurricane Sandy. In my part of the state it wasn't the flooding but the winds that uprooted trees by the thousands. Doing so might have wiped out the eggs.

When I hear the noise of a few cicadas, it is from the area of the old Greystone that is now the Central Park of Morris County. Around the time I was having work done on the house, the state was forced to build a smaller, more modern mental hospital because of well-publicized abuses that embarrassed then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. The bulk of the Greystone land was sold to Morris County, for $1, to create a park. In the process of doing so a lot of stone buildings were taken down, trees were uprooted and ground was dug up for playgrounds, ballfields and the like.

So that may be why I hear little in the way of Brood II when I walk around.

However, there are many more of them and they are much louder in the areas where I hike, which are county parks or land owned by New Jersey Audubon or the federal government. There is no "development" on this land except that of the natural cycle of birds, bees and insects. 

June 2013, by Margo D. Beller
While I worry about the overdevelopment of New Jersey, building huge houses where there once were farms, or expanding to create huge houses so each kid could have a room and each parent a mancave or restaurant-quality kitchen for eating take-out, I am not worried about Brood II.

Part of Nature's plan is the brood is so large that even if every bird caught a cicada (and since this is the time of year when young at the nest need to be fed, that means a lot of hungry birds) there would still be more than enough for most of the females to lay eggs for the next generation of Brood II.

The joke, if you can call it that, has always been that the cockroaches will survive after a nuclear holocaust wipes out humanity. I've no doubt cicadas will survive, too. In the meantime, this "invasion" should be over by July.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Fawn on the Lawn

At the end of May 1999, not long after we saw the Mets’ slugger Mo Vaughn hit a prodigious home run at Shea Stadium, I came out of my house to take a walk and found a newborn fawn curled up at the end of my front lawn. There was nothing between it and the street but the curb stones.

I thought it was dead. I prodded it with my foot and it stirred. I went back into the house to tell my husband.

I was between jobs at that point, so I was at home and had the time to focus on this unexpected delivery. Throughout the day I watched adults, kids and dogs walk by. No one noticed the fawn. However, its mother must’ve noticed because the next day the fawn had been moved to the long grass in our backyard near the flood wall, an area so secluded I almost missed it, too. The lawn had not been mowed in some time because our mower was being repaired.

We christened our visitor Mo Fawn.

I mention all this because for the first time since then I was puttering around the backyard the other morning and found another sleeping newborn fawn under our apple tree. Once again my reaction was to make sure it was alive. Unlike last time, I got my camera and took a picture of this cute, little baby.

Mo Fawn II, June 2013

It had been placed well. Once again, the grass was longer than it should’ve been (the mower we use now was not at fault; MH had wanted the grass long during a heatwave and had not gotten around to mowing once the wave ended) and the tree shaded Mo Fawn II as it slept.

I had learned from my brother-in-law the naturalist the last time that newborn fawns have no scent, which explains why dogs ignored it. However, people could still see it. This second time I was concerned kids from next door or cutting through the yard to retrieve an errant ball would touch it. If that happened its mother would abandon it.

MH mowed the lawn but left Mo within a wide swath of long grass.

I was sure its mother would take it away once it saw the grass had been cut. I was wrong.

The last time, after Mo had been there a couple of days, a doe and another fawn had come into our yard. I thought it was Mo’s mother. She left with her fawn. Mo, left behind, started the most piteous bleating, which tore at my heart and had me searching through my tears for an animal control number since I was sure it had been abandoned.

Just in time, MH called me to the back porch. There was the biggest doe I’ve ever seen feeding Mo. I almost fainted from relief. Once he was fed she led him away, as nature intended.

However, when it comes to deer, this is not a given. This is the New Jersey suburbs, where the leading cause of deer death is not human hunting or animal predators but collisions with cars. Every year there are many young animals that lose their mothers in accidents. There is a reason why hunting season is in November and not May into June when does give birth.

So I had an uneasy feeling when I awoke to find Mo II still with us. Had Mom been hit by a car? Did someone decide to go into the woods with a bow and arrow and poach a deer? Did someone come into my yard, bother the fawn and leave a scent, thus assuring abandonment?

Hope for the best, MH said, as he usually does. Wait another day before calling someone.

As it happened, Mo II was gone by day’s end. I work at home now, and when I came downstairs on a break I looked out the kitchen window at a large doe cleaning the fawn. It is the only time I’ll ever be happy to see a deer in my backyard.

She heard me come out on the porch and jumped over the low flood wall. She stayed in the bushes close by. I went back into the house and watched from the kitchen.

Soon she came out of the bushes and walked along the flood wall. Mo followed her from the other side. When she got him to an area where it wasn’t as high, he tried to jump the wall and couldn’t. He got very agitated and tried again. This time he made it. Mom turned and carefully led Mo to the next street and then across, up through the yards and into one last bit of woods not cut down for a street or housing development in my town.

The fawn on the lawn was gone, for now. I’ve no doubt once Mo is weaned he will be eating shrubbery and then he won’t be such a cute little thing to me.

A few things to remember from this episode. The more houses we build, the more we shrink the available woods that are home to deer, birds and other wild creatures, and the greater the chance these wild creatures come into contact with us. There are people who passionately want to ban all deer hunts, even tho’ the deer population has increased since our first encounter with Mo Fawn because we‘ve created such wonderful conditions for them.

The usual way I see deer in the backyard.
I'm not going to comment on hunting but I will say
I’ve learned over the course of two decades that if a deer is in the yard, see which way it is headed and then get behind it to encourage it off the property. If you make the deer run the way it came you have wasted your time because once you go inside it will only come back and head where it planned to go anyway.

I have learned why many of my neighbors don’t grow flowers or certain other plants -- there are no “deer-resistant” plants. Strong scents may deter them but I’ve found a hungry deer will nibble just about anything, which could kill your plant if enough of them try it..

I’ve also learned deer netting, ugly and cumbersome as it is, is the only real deterrent. But even here if a deer finds a weakness, something not fastened tight enough or too tight, it will strike. I’ve come outside to find netting slit down the middle because it had been strung too tight, and the plants behind eaten within an inch of their lives. One of those doing the eating might’ve been the original Mo Fawn. I’ve learned and adjusted.

All animals have it tough in this human world. MH and I did our small part. I don’t begrudge Mo II his life, even tho’ I will be sure to chase him, his mother and any other deer off my property the next time.