From the Magazine

Earth Almanac

Nature's walking stick; when a royal becomes a ragamuffin; a ubiquitous but rare species; mourning glory; more. 

1 |Carrying a Big Stick

For an apt description of the walkingstick, read no further than its name. Of the eight wingless species of these leaf-eating insects that abide in North America, the one you’re most likely to encounter is the northern walkingstick, which ranges from Alberta to New Mexico and east to the entire Atlantic Coast. But they’re so well camouflaged they go largely unseen until autumn, when they descend to mate. Not only do they resemble sticks; some species change color to match bark or foliage. As a further defense, walkingsticks release a repugnant liquid if attacked, and if juveniles lose legs to predators, new ones regenerate. Females, about four inches long, probably release pheromones to attract the smaller, thinner males. If you find a coupled pair at 8:00 a.m., there’s a good chance they’ll still be coupled at 8:00 p.m.; this is the male’s way of ensuring that his sperm only fertilizes his mate’s eggs. But even if no male shows up, the female can lay viable eggs, and her offspring will be exact duplicates of her. She’ll drop eggs on the ground until frost kills her. The egg casings are attractive to an ant species, which carries the eggs away, eats nonessential parts of the casings, and distributes the eggs unharmed. When walkingstick populations irrupt, particularly in confined areas like city parks, they occasionally defoliate and even kill trees.

2 |Riches to Rags

The fur of the ermine, or short-tailed weasel, was worn by kings—but only if procured in winter, when it’s white and punctuated by the black tail tip. “Royal ermine,” it was called. But as cool weather creeps over Europe, Eurasia, and North America, from tundra to latitudes as far south as central California and northern Virginia, ermine look more ragamuffin than royal. Now they’re splotched brown and white as their winter pelage replaces that of summer. A big male might weigh almost a pound and measure 18 inches, including its five-inch tail. But what the species lacks in size it makes up for in ferocity and fearlessness. It has even been seen to stand its ground in front of foxes, badgers, raptors, and domestic cats, all of which, given the opportunity, will prey on it. Ermine are active mostly at night, so look for them early and late in the day in marshes, forest edges, wet and open woodlands, and meadows. 


3 |Doll’s Eyes

All summer long white bane-berries have been ripening. In the eastern half of the nation, in dense woods and on north-facing slopes, these white orbs with the black, pupil-like dots hang about 30 inches from the ground on a thick, branching stem. Beautiful, striking, even a little ghoulish, they’re also called “doll’s eyes.” The name “baneberry” derives from their acute toxicity. Even handling them or their foliage can raise blisters. Yet birds such as yellow-bellied sapsuckers and robins along with small mammals including mice, voles, chipmunks, and squirrels eat them with impunity, thus distributing the seeds. However badly one may feel, one can always feel worse—a positive outlook no doubt acquired by drinking tea made from the plant’s roots, as was formerly prescribed for the discomfort of childbirth.


4 |Snakes Alive

So often in nature species that are secretive and hard to find are said to be “rare” when, in actuality, they’re all around us. So it is with the sharp-tailed snake, a shy creature no thicker, and barely longer, than a pencil. It hunts mostly at night and, when it is seen, it's often mistaken for a worm. Now that fall rains have made sharp-tailed snakes more active, look for them under rocks and logs, from southern British Columbia to central California. They bear a casual resemblance to juvenile garter snakes but are easily distinguishable by their smooth scales, the black-and-white barring on their undersides, and the spine on the tip of their tails. In British Columbia and Washington—where populations are isolated and thought to be relicts from a time when conditions were more favorable—sharp-tailed snakes really are rare. In Oregon, where the species was classified as “vulnerable” as recently as 2001, research by Richard Hoyer, Ryan O’Donnell, and Robert Mason indicates that sightings have been underestimated by a factor of 10.

5 |Mourning Glory

In Canada and the northern United States, mourning doves, named for their doleful cooing, are starting to migrate south. But you’ll still find some in all the contiguous states, southern Alaska, and even Hawaii (where they’ve been introduced). Listen for the sharp whistle of wings as they take to the air, and watch their swift, erratic flight. Mourning doves are our most popular game species by far. Each year American hunters kill something like 20 million—more than all other migratory game birds combined. Yet the population appears to be increasing. In this regard the mourning dove is the opposite of its cousin, the extinct passenger pigeon, described by Aldo Leopold as a “biological storm” and “the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air.” While the razing of forests and the plowing of prairies helped bring about the passenger pigeon’s demise (probably more so than uncontrolled hunting), this same habitat destruction brought an explosion of highly adaptable, grain-swilling mourning doves, whose fall population is now estimated at about 400 million. What’s more, mourning doves have the longest breeding season—February through October—of any North American bird, and in the warmer parts of their range they’ve been seen to fledge six broods a year.


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