Earth Almanac

Our cottontail; ode to a devil's urn; more. 

1 | Our Cottontail

Throughout southwestern North America, from northern Montana to central Mexico and west to the Pacific, Audubon’s cottontails (named in honor of John James Audubon) are multiplying like, well, rabbits. These long-eared, medium-sized lagomorphs breed in every month, sometimes producing five litters a year. The gestation period is about a month, and there can be as many as five young per litter. Like most species that compensate for heavy predation by pumping out lots of offspring, the Audubon’s cottontail is short-lived, seldom surviving more than two years. However, its fecundity together with an ability to adapt to radically diverse habitats—from high-country grasslands to low, sun-blasted badlands, even to the lawn under your bird feeder—has enabled the species to achieve great success. Audubon’s cottontails are especially fond of prairie dog towns, where they appropriate the burrows and take advantage of the forbs and grasses that thrive in the excavated earth. Unlike other rabbits, they’re proficient climbers, sometimes scaling leaning trees. Midday heat usually drives them to their burrows, so look for them at dawn and dusk. 


2|Ode to a Devil’s Urn

Most winged and flowering harbingers of spring are weeks away. But now, east of the Rockies, nothing speaks of coming beauty quite like the devil’s urn—that black, leathery fungi fruiting on dead hardwoods and on cankering living ones. Its apt Latin name, Urnula craterium, translates to “burned crater.” If you look past the physical appearance of this agent of decay and rebirth, you may perceive in its function something more beautiful than any Grecian urn. What’s more, you have reason to rejoice if you discover devil’s urns on your property, because their presence proves your soil is fertile. Not only do these fungi herald spring, they symbolize it as well, for few forest denizens are so prolific. Spores require only about an hour and a half to germinate, and the success rate is extremely high. If the sight of a March devil’s urn buoys your spirits as much as, say, the first flash of a May tanager, then you have arrived as a naturalist. 


3|Midday Caroler

Snow lingers in their breeding range when indigo buntings waft north on night winds from Central America, Mexico, and our nation’s extreme south. The diffraction of light from the males’ black feathers makes them appear iridescent blue and sometimes varying shades of turquoise. Females are dull brown, with faint, buff wing bars, whitish throats, and often finely streaked breasts. Few insects and spiders are active now, so for the next few days don’t be surprised to see them at your bird feeder. Unlike most songbirds, the male indigo bunting often carols at midday. In the words of early 20th-century ornithologist Edward Forbush, “He will sing his way from the bottom of a tree to the top, going up branch by branch until he has reached the topmost spire, and there, fully exposed to the blazing sun, he will sing and sing and sing.” (To hear the vocalization, Google “indigo bunting song.”) Because these birds avoid unbroken forests, preferring instead second growth, edges, and brushy fields, there are doubtless more now than in pre-Columbian days.


4|Early Risers

Even before some of the hibernating butterflies have hauled their tattered wings from leaf piles and wood crevices, Pacific orangetips are struggling from overwintering pupae (which may have been in diapause for two or more years). As spring races north from Baja California to Alaska, watch for these members of the white and  sulphur family west of the Pacific divide. They resemble their cousins in basic coloring, save for the rich orange tips of their forewings. Dorsal wing surfaces of both sexes are mostly white (sometimes yellow, especially in females). But their undersides are marbled, camouflaging the insects when they perch on bark with their wings folded shut. Now males search for mates in wooded, grassy, or brushy meadows, canyons, stream banks, and hillsides. As the season progresses, females will deposit green eggs on rock cresses and other wild mustards. Within about 24 hours the eggs turn bright orange.


5| Dance Class

A strange and ancient dance takes place starting this time of year in most of our eastern and central states and in much of Texas and Oklahoma. You may have missed it in the southern part of this range, but in the north there’s still time to attend. The only prerequisite for participation is that you be a slimy salamander. Here are the steps: First the male pushes the prominent gland on his chin against his partner’s tail, body, and head. Then, employing his stout tail, he raises and lowers his hind legs simultaneously and separately. As the dance progresses he starts raising his front legs as well. His feet, chin, and the silvery spots on his head, body, and tail turn pink, then bright red. He rubs against his partner, gently bites and releases her, then inserts his head under her chin and moves beneath her. Now the female gets into it, straddling his tail and moving forward. The male stops, rocks, and drops a sperm-filled capsule called a spermatophore. Finally, the female picks up the spermatophore with her cloacal lips. Slimy salamanders are a complex of species, not a single one. Depending on which taxonomist you believe, there may be as few as three or as many as 16 closely related and strikingly similar species. Forget about distinguishing them in the field. A better name for this complex would be “sticky salamander,” because the mucous they secrete as a defense against predators is thick and gluelike. It took one researcher 10 minutes to scrub it off his hands. Slimy salamanders are completely terrestrial, and there is no distinct larval stage. Eggs, deposited underground, hatch into miniature versions of the adults. 


6|Flower of Many Names

The trout lily, as the unofficial dean of fly fishers, John Voelker, wrote of its namesake, “will not—indeed cannot—live except where beauty dwells.” The brown mottling on the elliptical leaves resembles the pattern on the backs of brook trout—the gaudy landlocked char with which trout lilies share some range and general habitat in the eastern United States and Canada. As brook trout begin their spring feeding frenzy, the yellow blooms of trout lilies unfurl in moist, open woodlands and especially along rills, rivers, and ponds. Though they’re true lilies, they’re also known as “dog-toothed violets” because of the shape of the corm. Other names include “fawn lily,” for the spots on the leaves; “adder’s tongue,” for the sharply pointed, unfurled leaves that push up through forest duff; and “thousand leaf,” because the dense colonies often have few blooms, a function of subterranean runners that produce only one leaf. (A plant needs two leaves to produce a flower, and this may not happen until its seventh year.) Leaves and corms are relished by wild-food aficionados, though if consumed in excess, they can cause vomiting. Leaves may also be ingested as birth control—as prescribed by early Native Americans—provided pregnancy is not a concern.