The Beauty of Trees

Original photography ©Janice Stiles-Boults


Disappearing Rabbit Trick

New England Cottontail
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Reading the endangered wildlife list last month prompted a research mission to find out what the most threatened species might be in Massachusetts. I learned that the New England cottontail is very close to making the federal endangered list. In the summertime, I see rabbits galore on my early morning commute to work; one road in particular I have dubbed ‘bunny lane’, where I have to play dodge the rabbit! Therefore, it is surprising to consider rabbits as a threatened species, particularly with their reputation for prolific breeding.

In our region, we have two types of rabbits: the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis) and the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus). They are so similar that most people cannot tell them apart; the one we see in abundance is the Eastern cottontail, common across the United States. The New England cottontail, smaller than the Eastern, is disappearing. Its’ populations are declining, and their range has shrunk by more than seventy-five percent. In Vermont, its’ numbers are so greatly diminished, it can no longer be found, and New Hampshire added it to the state’s list of endangered species in 2008. Data provided by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service found that there was “substantial need for protection of the New England cottontail under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.” It was further determined that federal listing was warranted, however precluded due to other listing priorities; the rabbit remains listed as a special concern.

The New England cottontail prefers land in transition between field and forest, full of brambles and low bushes. Thickets were common on farmland and these rabbits once thrived, but much of New England now consists of mature forests, or developed land, which do not have the undergrowth that sustains and protects them. The Eastern cottontail population is strong because it is a hardier rabbit and lives on plants indicative of open land such as old fields and meadows. Part of any restoration project to save the rabbits might be getting private landowners to agree to cut their woodlands and let them turn into thickets. Halting the decline of scrub and brush land will be paramount to saving the New England cottontail; if it is not brought back, the region will lose a species native to no where else in the world!

Reported by Janice Stiles-Boults
©2009, April, New Marlborough 5 Village News

Ladybug, Ladybug

Out of winter hiding and onto the walls and windows of houses, swarms of ladybugs appear each spring. Where do they come from and where have they been all those cold months? Pretty bugs, however a nuisance when you start crunching them on the floor, or they leave spots on clean windows! When warmer weather arrives, open the windows and let them out, or vacuum them up, then empty the bag outside! They love aphids, so place them in your garden or on rose bushes.

Coccinellidae is a family of beetles, known variously as ladybirds (British English, Australian English, South African English), ladybugs (North American English), or lady beetles (preferred by some scientists). The one we see most often in New England is scarlet with small black spots, but there are also yellow and orange bugs with black spots, technically a “Multicolored Asian Ladybird Beetle,” or ladybug. The ladybug is the official state insect of Massachusetts, Delaware, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Tennessee. Found worldwide, there are over 5,000 species described, with more than 450 native to North America alone. In Asia, they congregate in large numbers on white cliffs for the winter hibernation. Lacking white cliffs In the U.S., ladybugs will seek out white, or light colored houses with a southwestern sun exposure. These bugs can squeeze through cracks and crevices, under clapboards and windowsills trying to find warmth. They gather in a group, called an aggregation of ladybugs, so if you see one in your house, you can be sure there are more to follow. Once spring arrives, they wake up and attempt to move outdoors, not all succeed, with many trapped inside, where they do not reproduce.

While not destructive or damaging to a home, they can secrete a strong smelling yellowish liquid from the joints of their legs, a process called reflex bleeding. They use this to discourage predators or at other times when they are stressed. This liquid can also stain light colored surfaces. Large infestations have a distinct odor. However, they are useful bugs, feeding on aphids and scale insects, which are pests in gardens, agricultural fields, and orchards. The Mall of America released thousands of ladybugs into its indoor park as a natural means of pest control for its gardens. Colonies hibernating in your house live off their own body fat, but homes during the winter are generally dry which causes most of the ladybugs to die from dehydration. Occasionally in mid-winter, you might see a ladybug in your bathroom getting a drink of water. Now that is one smart lady!

Some people consider seeing ladybugs, or having them land on one's body to be a sign of good luck to come. When ladybugs arrived en masse, eating aphids and saving crops during the middle ages, the farmers began calling the ladybugs "The Beetles of Our Lady," eventually shortened to "Lady Beetles" or “Lady Bugs.” The red wings represented the Virgin's cloak and the black spots represented her joys and sorrows.

A well-known nursery rhyme relates to Ladybirds, the English version dating to at least 1744. The poem was a warning to ladybugs still crawling on old hop vines about to be set fire to clear the fields for the next planting. The ladybugs’ children (larvae) could get away from the flames, but the pupae, referred to Ann, or Nan in some versions, were fastened to the plants and thus could not escape.

Ladybug, ladybug flyaway home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one,
And her name is Ann,
And she hid under the baking pan

Written by Janice Stiles-Boults