Shawnee News-Star Sunday May 27th 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg The pair of cardinals had been so busy for days constructing their nest in the holly.   The location was protected from winds and light rains and the leaves offered ample cover.   I could watch the construction from the sunporch.   The female was very young. Whenever any […]

Shawnee News-Star Sunday May 27th 2018

Empty Nest

Becky Emerson Carlberg

The pair of cardinals had been so busy for days constructing their nest in the holly.   The location was protected from winds and light rains and the leaves offered ample cover.   I could watch the construction from the sunporch.   The female was very young. Whenever any person walked in front of the house, she spooked, chirped and flew into a tree.   I wondered if this might interfere with the future of her family.   Wonder no more.

Last night we were finishing the dishes and heard rapid fire staccato chirps from the holly.   The lady was apparently on her nest, but something had really scared her.   In the darkness, the little cardinal couldn't find her usual way in and out in of the holly and floundered within the branches and leaves until she finally extricated herself and wildly flew off.   Our cats went wild with excitement hoping she would somehow magically appear in the house.

This morning no cardinal was in the trees or on the nest.   After several hours I went to peer inside the nest.   It was empty, so either some critter had eaten the eggs or she had not yet begun to start her family.   So much for cardinal observations this year.

My mother had a cardinal who built a nest in the euonymus shrub growing right by the front door. People constantly walked within a foot of the nest, but the female held fast and not only hatched but fledged a clutch of little red birds.

This cardinal had something in common with the wife of the man who had the house built.   His mate was very sensitive to allergens so he carefully designed a home that was nearly allergy-free with thick walls, tile floors and a steel frame.     The story was she walked in, looked around and walked out. Was not going to live in that house.   Period. Never spent a single night in the house.   The structure was quickly completed and put on the market.   At least the cardinal did stay in her nest for part of the night.

Most caterpillars are good, and on my way to water the sunflowers I noticed the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) was being chomped on by strange larvae.   Figuring they would soon develop into some sort of moth or butterfly, I took pictures. Who were these little guys with a powerful appetite?   The caterpillars were quite small, about 1/2 inch long, greenish yellow and had dark lumps at both ends with a few scattered along the top.   They did their eating while on the underside of the leaves, so they are also smart.   Turns out they are clever as well.

According to the Springfield Plateau Chapter of the Missouri Master Naturalists, these are Sumac Flea Beetle larvae (Blepharida rhois.)   The mature adult beetles are 1/4th inch in size, colorfully decorated in oranges, sepias and tans, and have internal spring mechanisms in their thighs so they can jump like a flea if necessary.    Before pupating, these caterpillars dine exclusively on sumac.   Yet another case of specific insect for specific host plant.   The dark lumps are feces, yes, used as a shield. The chemicals in sumac provide an innovative defense against predatory ants and birds. How did these insects figure out deposits of s–t would be better than armor? The larvae eat, drop off and pupate in the ground, then as resurrected beetles they return to munch on more sumac.   The damage done to the sumac is minimal.

Now that you have been educated on poop shields, there is so much more to poop.  Insect poop is called frass.   In the National Geographic Weird Animal Question of the Week, the question 'how do animals use poop?' popped up. Did you know that a group of badgers will dig a line of pits to mark their territory?   Otter dung sometimes smells like violets.   The Egyptian vulture homes in on yellow poop to eat because not only is it as good as carrots with carotenoids but enhances their yellow bills and faces.

Sumas Flea Beetle Larvae


Dung beetles are fascinating.   Males court females at the dung pile and together they roll their ball of poop to the right spot for burial where one single egg is laid inside.   How romantic.   Even better, Mediterranean dung beetle larvae eat their mother's dung since it contains necessary microbes to help them digest the cow poop into which they are born.   That is true love.   Or as Anne Estes, a microbiologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore quipped 'It's a crappy way to get food.' Ok State Entomology has a lengthy pdf file all about how dung beetles reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle manure.   Cow patties! Now we're talking.

A recycler that aids in disposing dead critters, the American Burying Beetle, is a critically endangered species.   Decked out in OSU colors, a pair of beetles locates a small dead animal, the female will lay eggs in tunnels built near the food source, and both parents (unusual in insects) help tend and feed the carrion to their babies. Previously inhabiting 35 states, only 4 states now have natural populations:   Rhode Island, Nebraska, Arkansas and Oklahoma. The American Burying Beetle is an indicator species.   If it tanks, we have serious problems with the environment.   Guess what?   The earth's environment keeps us alive too.

Cherokee Purple Heirloom Tomato

The greenhouse environment is supporting my one heirloom tomato that continues to bear fruit. The plant is watered every day but it is preparing for retirement.   The ants look for the tomatoes that have cracks near the stem end.   I did not look for ants when I picked one luscious tomato.   They spilled out of the fruit all over the kitchen counter.   My guilty conscious and I tried to collect as many little black ants as possible and back to the greenhouse we all went.   Better there than in the kitchen.

For all you who have tomato seedlings or young plants in the ground (or in pots), Jerry Baker (you all know this man) recommends his tomato blight buster as a tonic to soothe transplanted tomato seedlings and plants.   Three cups of compost, ˝ cup powdered nonfat dry milk, ˝ cup Epsom salts and 1 tablespoon baking soda.   Yum.  Sprinkle a handful in planting hole or on the top of the soil around each plant every few weeks with additional nonfat dry milk.   This mix repels tomato diseases and boosts the calcium tomatoes require to prevent blossom end rot.

Rachel Carson was born on May 27th 1907.   The American marine biologist and writer was an avid environmentalist.   'The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.'