The Gifts of May

Spring is my favorite season and May my favorite month. To me, beginnings are always more thrilling than endings and comings more wonderful than goings as I experience all the excitement of new and resurrecting life—the returning of birds, the blooming of wildflowers, trees and shrubs, and the newborn fawns, bear cubs, and other mammals.

A scarlet tanager in Chester County, PA, on May 14, 2014 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

A scarlet tanager in Chester County, PA, on May 14, 2014 (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar, on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

May gives me these and other gifts every spring when I welcome back scarlet tanagers, wood thrushes, Acadian flycatchers, worm-eating warblers and all the other part-time bird residents of our Appalachian forest as they return from incredible journeys to once again court, mate and raise their families.

My May journal is filled with bird sightings and songs. Most are expected, old friends. Others are less familiar or less common on our property and are passing though in search of their particular habitat, for instance, the yellow warbler last May 24, which likes early successional lowland habitat and was singing in our remaining elm tree beside our access road.

A northern harrier hovering over potential prey (Photo by Don on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A northern harrier hovering over potential prey (Photo by Don on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Another surprise, two days later, was a female northern harrier that coursed low over our overgrown First Field, occasionally dropping into the grasses but coming up empty. Once an American crow flew at her when she was on the ground but was quickly routed. It was a treat to watch as she dipped and swayed over the field, her white searchlight bright above her tail, which flared to expose its black and white stripes.

As I walked down the driveway for a closer look, she easily maneuvered through the black locust trees along Butterfly Loop, 50 feet or so above the ground, before disappearing from view. Sometimes I see northern harriers here in fall or winter, but never in spring because, as a denizen of large, open fields, she, like the yellow warbler, breeds in the nearby valleys and was only a visitor.

A rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by John Harrison in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A rose-breasted grosbeak (Photo by John Harrison in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still another bird species, the lovely white-crowned sparrow, visits us and appears in the spring only when our dandelions go to seed, even though its habitat—brush, forest edges, and thickets—is plentiful here. On May 3, I was treated to the sight of a pair of white-crowned sparrows hanging out in our backyard with two gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeaks and the sparrow-like brown and white of a female grosbeak. Although the grosbeaks breed on our mountain, they are rarely seen. It was a special gift of May for me to see two such striking birds together.

Then there is the inevitable mystery bird. Late on a lovely May 20th afternoon, I sat on our veranda, binoculars in hand. I heard what sounded like a partial Baltimore oriole song and found the singer up in a black walnut tree. It looked like an oriole and was yellow with white wing bars and a black face and neck. It turned out to be a first year male orchard oriole. I had been puzzled because I had only seen the adult male orchard oriole here a couple times in 45 years and they have dark chestnut rumps and breasts and black heads, necks, backs, and tails.

An orchard oriole in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An orchard oriole in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But a quick look at the oriole pages in my Peterson field guide and I had identified the mystery bird. It too had strayed from its usual valley habitat of floodplains, marshes, the shorelines of large rivers and scattered trees, or along streams as well as open farmland.

According to the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania, although orchard orioles only spend three months of the year here, they are continuing a remarkable northward expansion in the commonwealth along river valleys and now are found in varying numbers nearly statewide. But in our county—Blair—they were only noted in small numbers in the farm valleys.

A sharp-shinned hawk with prey under foot (Photo by Abdoozy on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A sharp-shinned hawk with prey under foot (Photo by Abdoozy on Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Personalities of birds vary widely as I discovered last May. As I approached the back of the spruce grove on May 23, a sharp-shinned hawk sitting in a black locust tree near the grove began calling loudly and then flew low and directly toward my head, veering off at the last minute and then landing on a nearby branch.

The following day it was even more aggressive, diving at me a couple times when I tried to enter Sapsucker Ridge Trail near the grove. For five years sharpies had raised young in our spruce grove and never were aggressive even when I walked through the grove. Usually, one parent or the other would be sitting and watching on a locust tree, and when I approached would call quietly as a warning to the other parent on the nest.

Then there had been a year without sharpies nesting in the grove. This aggressive one could have been an offspring because those sharpies always were successful raising a family as I discovered every August when their fledged young screamed for food from the tops of the spruces for a week or so before flying off to catch food on their own. Surprisingly, despite the aggression of this new sharpie, I heard no such proof of nesting success last August.

A black bear at a pond in West Virginia, April 21, 2010 (Photo by ForestWander in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A black bear at a pond in West Virginia, April 21, 2010 (Photo by ForestWander in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Still, because of that “crazy” sharpie, I walked off-trail through the woods to avoid the bird instead of taking my usual trail near the back of the grove to the vernal pond. As I approached the pond, I spotted a black bear walking slowly away from me, his butt still wet from his wallow in the water.

I froze and watched as he shook himself like a dog and then meandered slowly to a patch of evergreen wood ferns where he nosed around for a few minutes. Next he plodded to a nearby tree and stretched up to rub his back and scent over its trunk.

Suddenly, he turned and peered in my direction. I remained still and quiet, and he turned away and continued his slow walk until he was out of sight.

Once he was gone, I was able to track his wet steps out of the pond and over to the fern patch. I never did figure out what he was looking for. I had assumed food, but perhaps he had scented a male rival or a possible female mate, hence his back-rubbing. I only wished that I had arrived a little sooner and seen him paddling in the pond. Nevertheless, it is always a thrill to watch a bear that isn’t aware of my presence and going about his bear business.

Wood frog tadpoles (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Wood frog tadpoles (Photo by Brian Gratwicke on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

I had gone, as I do most spring days, to the vernal pond to keep track of the wood frogs. As I had written in my March column, last spring all had gone exceptionally well for the wood frogs. But in April the expected rains didn’t come. Day by day, I watched as the pond slowly dried up. But the end of April I found only a few tiny puddles and a few wood frog tadpoles fighting for life. Once again the wood frogs had lost their gamble—or so I thought.

Then came the rains of early May. On the twelfth, it finally cleared by mid-afternoon, and I took my usual walk up First Field Trail where a ruffed grouse performed her broken wing act, on to the Far Field Road and Coyote Bench, where I was serenaded by red-eyed vireos, scarlet tanagers and American redstarts, and over to the vernal pond area to see if it had refilled. But first I paused to admire the spreading patch of still-blooming spring beauties near the pond.

With a heavy heart, I approached the vernal pond and blinked. It was seething with wood frog tadpoles, a veritable tadpole soup. How was it possible?

I contacted Dr. Jim Julian, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Altoona. He specializes in herpetology and years ago gave my husband Bruce and me a tour of the vernal ponds at the Scotia game lands (SGL#176). He told me that he had “seen wood frog tadpoles survive in really wet/soupy mud for a couple days. While they use their gills to get oxygen from the water, they’re using their skin for respiration also, [which] is probably why they can live for a while after the ponds dry.”

So, mystery solved, but still such a recovery seemed almost miraculous to me and still another priceless gift from last May.

 

My “Arena of Delight”

March is a month of hope and resurrection in the natural world. I carry hope with me as we cycle through days of cold and snow, sunshine and warmth, and I bear witness to a variety of sights and sounds during my daily morning walks.

American woodcock

American woodcock (Photo by Fyn Kynd Photography on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

As soon as we have patches of open field, American woodcocks return from their wintering grounds in the southeastern United States. I stand outside at dusk listening and watching as they “peent, peent,” then fly high in the sky and twitter as they plunge back to earth and start over again. But no matter how many times they perform, it is never enough, and I am outside most evenings, waiting for encores.

On early March days I stand at the top of First Field, straining eyes and ears, watching as hundreds of tundra swans fly northwest in wavering flocks like white angels whistling in the wind.

Shortly afterward, the first turkey vultures rock past, catching the breeze wafting over First Field. Those black scavengers haven’t gone much farther than southern Pennsylvania, a few no more than 20 miles from here, yet we rarely see one after mid-November or before mid-March.

A tufted titmouse singing

A tufted titmouse singing (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

March is also the official start for birdsong, although resident black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice have been singing off-and-on since late January. Still, I can expect to hear the singing of our wintering migrants in March—American tree sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, and white-throated sparrows—before they move farther north to breed.

Some birds that are migrating through the state, such as fox sparrows, also sing. Song sparrows, those that stayed and those that returned, keep up their relentless “spring is here” song even during cold snaps. But no sparrow song sounds sweeter than that of returning field sparrows and First Field soon reverberates with their downward spiraling songs.

A winter wren singing

A winter wren singing (Photo by Ron Knight in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Winter wrens that have spent the cold months near our stream sing the loveliest and longest song of all, and if we have any Carolina wrens they have been singing their rollicking song all year. Soon enough, eastern bluebirds, American robins, and northern cardinals add their songs to the mix.

It may not be a song, but when I hear the froggy-sounding “fee-bee” of eastern phoebes and see their sleek gray and white selves perching on our electric lines and flicking their tails, it seems as if spring is truly here.

Raptors too make first appearances, and on a warm March day I am treated to the sight of a pair of courting red-tailed hawks over First Field, renewing their monogamous bond by diving, screaming, and dangling their legs. As often as I’ve watched their preliminaries, I’ve never seen courtship feeding, interlocking talons or beaks, and spiraling together toward the ground during their aerial displays.

A cooper’s hawk in a deciduous woods

A cooper’s hawk in a deciduous woods (Photo by William H. Majoros in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Cooper’s hawks also set up territories and call, especially early in the morning, and usually in our deciduous forest. But last March they called from our spruce grove, which has been the breeding choice of sharp-shinned hawks for years. Because the grove is thick, I only know the sharpies are in residence when I hear their warning cries or see a parent perched nearby in a locust tree as I approach the grove, and finally in August when their offspring fledge and call over and over like lost children.

American kestrels are even more secretive, and even though a male returns in early March and sits expectantly on the powerline right-of-way most March days, no female appears while I’m watching. I always hope that a pair will set up housekeeping in one of the many holes pileated woodpeckers have drilled in the power poles, as a pair did back in the 1970s, when my sons and I enjoyed watching the newly-fledged young and their parents flying over the field, but it’s never happened again. They weren’t even tempted by the kestrel nest box we erected one spring.

A barred owl in the spring

A barred owl in the spring (Photo by Mark on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

For decades we had great horned owls courting in January, but over the last several years, as our trees have aged, they have been replaced by barred owls. Those owls breed later than great horned owls, and although they are liable to call all year, they call most frequently here in early March before egg-laying. They even call during the daytime, and I hear them in mid-morning as well as mid-afternoon somewhere behind the spruce grove.

Mammals are also stirring. Woodchucks are out and about, even though the males trotted from burrow to burrow in February to mate with ready females and gray squirrels and foxes courted late in January and early February. Black bears rarely appear until April, but I take in my bird feeders every night once it warms up in March.

Close-up of a porcupine (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Close-up of a porcupine (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Porcupines have been active all winter, but one of the first signs of spring is a porcupine eating tree buds high in the only surviving American elm tree in our exclosure. They also graze on grass like woodchucks. The first time I observed this, I thought it was unusual, but I see this behavior every spring. They are so busy eating that they pay no attention as I walk within eight feet of them and watch as they snap off and eat one grass stalk after another. If I get too close to one, it will look up, slowly turn around, and erect its rosette of quills. That’s when I turn around and leave it to its grass banquet.

On an early March day I am sometimes lucky enough to encounter eastern chipmunks mate-chasing. Last March I interrupted a male chipmunk chasing along Big Tree Trail, and when I sat down on a large log to watch, he ignored me. A couple times a female chipmunk ran 30 feet up a tree to a pileated woodpecker hole and took refuge from her male chaser. The many fallen trees provided runways for the chipmunks and included the one I was sitting on. There the pair paused, and it was the female that zipped past my feet and escaped. Two more timorous males that had joined the chase, stopped, waited a couple minutes, took an alternate path away from me, then quickly scented the female and followed her trail. She, in the meantime, had disappeared and they did too. Unlike once years ago, I did not see the mating of the chipmunks.

A wood frog floating during spring mating season (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A wood frog floating during spring mating season (Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

To witness the culmination of a courtship that happens during March, I spend hours at our vernal pond observing wood frogs. After spending the winter freeze-dried down in their burrows, they rise and hop to their natal pond. The males arrive first by the dozens, and they sound like quacking ducks as they call while swimming in the pond.

One warm, overcast day I encounter 100 wood frogs calling and swimming in our vernal pond as I creep from tree to tree, getting close to the action without being seen. A mating ball of masked, brown, male wood frogs tumble over a larger, pink female with one of her legs high in the air. From a tiny bear wallow 20 feet away, two more male wood frogs leap out and head for the larger pond as if drawn by the frenetic sound and action.

I move closer and closer and sit to watch less than ten feet away. They pay me no attention even as they call above a roaring March wind. A few climb out of the vernal pond and sit on logs in and around the water as they continue calling, their bodies shaking with the effort.

A mass of wood frog eggs

A mass of wood frog eggs (Photo by The Natural Capital on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

On later days the pond is quieter and the few wood frogs left much shyer. Still, when I slowly circle the pond, in its murky depths I see large clusters of jelly-like balls filled with eggs and know that later in the spring day by day I’ll watch the metamorphosis from eggs, to tadpoles, to tiny wood frogs that leave the pond to spend their lives in the leaf litter. Only occasionally do I see a wood frog until the following March when hundreds return to repeat a sight for me that never grows old. A video by Dave captures the spirit of the wood frogs in Plummer’s Hollow.


Sometime on a late, warm, March morning the eastern garter snakes emerge from the ground near our old well. At first the smaller males move around aimlessly, but then a larger female appears and the males rush to form a mating ball around her. I watch as they tumble down our hilly lawn. Only one male will inseminate her then, but it’s difficult to figure out which one because males emerge, join, leave, go back into holes, return, and finally the ball disintegrates as the snakes slither off in all directions.

Late in March the first chipping sparrows return and the first eastern towhees call. Ruffed grouse drum and migrating yellow-bellied sapsuckers mew like kittens. My favorite season is well on its way, and I’m grateful to be alive and able to appreciate my “arena of delight,” as poet Mary Oliver says, that is spring in Pennsylvania.

 

Mindful Creatures

This column was rejected by the new editor of Game News because of what he considered to be controversial content. No doubt he knows his audience. But I would like to put this column out for my web readers who may find it useful and may, like me, wonder why so many people are willing to believe that their domestic pets have minds but not wild animals who, we must admit, have much harder lives to live. Surely we have all evolved from the same beginnings, and surely that means that other mammals, like us, as well as birds and other creatures, must have minds that resemble ours, even if they are not nearly as well-developed. On the other hand, many of these species have lived longer on this earth than we have.

North American porcupine close up

Up close and personal with a porcupine

For almost half my life, treating wild creatures as thinking beings was scorned as anthropomorphizing them. Most scientists considered them to be little more than thoughtless robots. They neglected the study of animal minds because they didn’t believe that they could tell the difference between automatic, unthinking responses on the part of animals from possible behavior that showed an ability to make choices in what they do.

In school, students learned that it was unscientific to ask what an animal thinks or feels. If they were so bold as to ask, they were “actively discouraged, ridiculed, and treated with open hostility” as Donald R. Griffin wrote in his ground-breaking book Animal Thinking back in 1984. A renowned bat biologist, his previous book, in 1981, The Question of Animal Awareness, had been the subject of widespread derision. Still, he was able to give many examples of seemingly thoughtful wild creatures who, when they were confronted with new problems, acted creatively to solve them.

The writings of Griffin and other scientists, interested in what Griffin called cognitive ethology, have encouraged some scientists to study learning in vertebrate and invertebrate animals. They have been bolstered by the work of neurobiologists, who study the brains of animals and have made some amazing discoveries, most notably the fact that an animal that has loops between its thalamus and its forebrain is a conscious thinker. Birds and mammals, including humans, have these loops. So too do reptiles, although their loops are minimal.

New Caledonian Crow painting by John Gerrard Keulemans

Corvus moneduloides, New Caledonian Crow (John Gerrard Keulemans, 1877)

If you call someone a “bird brain,” you are paying them a compliment. Birds, especially those in the Corvid family, have brains that weigh almost as much as ours do in relation to our total body weight. Our brain weighs three pounds or 1.9% on average of our body weight. Ravens and most crow species have brains that make up 1.4% of their body weight, although the super learners in the Corvid family—New Caledonian crows—possess brains that comprise a whopping 2.7% of their body weight. These percentages compare with those of similar-sized mammals such as small monkeys. Other bird species, even smaller songbirds like chickadees, also have amazing brains.

These discoveries and many more have been recently pulled together in Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans by Dr. John Marzluff and Tony Angell and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird by Dr. Tim Birkhead. Both of these books are written for a general audience but they make use of dozens of scientific papers with such titles as “Stress, Corticosterone Responses and Avian Personalities” (my italics) by J.F. Cockrem in the Journal of Ornithology and “An Intelligent Crow Beats a Lab” by A. Straub in Science.

All of this is an introduction, of sorts, to bird, mammal, and reptile behavior my husband, Bruce, our son, Dave, and I observed last June. None of it was particularly cutting-edge, but more than once I wished I had a better understanding of animals’ minds. Or, in the words of Griffin, “We like and admire other animals… because we enjoy trying to imagine what their lives are like to them…”

Dave exchanges threat displays with a porcupine

Dave communes with a porcupine (photo: Bruce Bonta)

That’s what I did wonder one June morning when a large porcupine waddled toward me on the Far Field Road. I stepped off the road and watched as it advanced. Because of its whitish quills, it looked as if it had a halo over its shoulders. Once it paused to scratch itself. When it was almost abreast of me, it turned and crossed the road, headed in my direction.

“Hello,” I said. It stopped and spread its tail to impress me with its quills. I continued talking quietly to it. Finally, it turned around and leisurely retraced its steps. Then it left the road and went into the woods where it slowly hitched its way up the largest chestnut oak tree beside the road. It flattened itself out on one of the highest branches overlooking the road directly above me, alert and watchful, until I moved on.

I’ve encountered numerous porcupines on our trails, and usually they hiss, spread their tails, and scramble up the nearest tree. But this porcupine, which looked like a grizzled old timer, didn’t seem fazed by me. Was it the animal’s age, experience, calmer temperament, or something else, I wondered, as I continued on my way.

Several nights later, Bruce was awakened by a bang on the back porch below the bedroom. He got up, grabbed his flashlight, and went downstairs to investigate, thinking that maybe a burglar was trying to get inside.

He tiptoed out to the kitchen, turned on the porch light, and saw not one but three masked bandits—a mother raccoon and her two kits. Since we had taken in our bird feeders two months before, he couldn’t figure out what they were doing as the little ones climbed up on the railing and the post that supported the porch roof. He shone his flashlight on first one kit, then the other, and finally on the mother but none of them seemed bothered by the light.

Raccoon family unit

Raccoon family unit (photo: Bruce Irschick, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

He watched as they sniffed and explored. At last they climbed off the porch and trundled over to the outside cellar steps. Then one of the kits poked around in the grasses just below our sitting room bow window. That was when the mother raccoon noticed Bruce watching them. Or perhaps she smelled him through the screened window. She snarled loudly, but all three raccoons kept poking around in the underbrush as they made their way slowly toward the front of the house and out of sight.

This time it was Bruce who wondered about the mind of a raccoon, and the next morning Dave solved the mystery. He noticed that a bald-faced hornet nest (Dolichovespula maculate), which had been attached to the porch roof, lay in gray tatters on the porch floor. In that case, the mother raccoon had been teaching her kits about one of their favorite foods. I was reminded of a Nature show I had watched on PBS about how cleverly raccoons adjust to and find food and shelter even in busy cities. According to raccoon researcher, Stan Gehrt, raccoons are incredibly adaptive. Even their personalities change from shy and reclusive in the country to bold in the city as they use their hand-like paws and mammal-sized brains to defeat humans’ numerous attempts to design raccoon-proof garbage cans.

The male flicker at the nest hole

The male flicker at the nest hole (photo: Rachel Rawlins)

During last May and June Dave enjoyed sitting on his front porch and watching a yellow-shafted flicker family set up housekeeping in a dead elm tree at the edge of his yard. For more than a week in early May, the male and female took turns excavating the hole said to be 13 to 16 inches deep. Muffled knocks from inside the dead elm led to a flicker head popping out of the hole and flinging a bill full of wood chips into the air.

Eventually, by mid-May, their excavation work was over, and the female laid her 5 to 8 eggs. Then the parents attended the nest in shifts, each one doing its share of work. They were due to hatch in 11 to 13 days. In the meantime, they fought off a pileated woodpecker, downy woodpecker, and another flicker, all coveting the nest hole, and reminding me of the many times I have watched flickers over the years try to establish a nest in a black walnut tree hole beside our driveway. Never once have they been successful because of gray squirrels who consider it their home.

On June 12 Dave noticed that both parents were outside the hole at the same time for as long as 15 minutes, and he wondered if the eggs had hatched. The next afternoon he again saw both parents outside, and the male sounded agitated. The female sat on a dead elm branch a few feet above the nest hole.

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

The black rat snake after its meal of flicker young

That’s when Dave noticed something sticking out of the cavity. It was the head of a black rat snake. Somehow the reptile had realized a meal awaited it 25 feet up the nearly smooth trunk of the dead elm and managed to climb it.

It remained in the hole, digesting its meal until 10:30 a.m. the following day, and Dave watched as it spent 50 minutes slowly descending the tree trunk, seemingly studying all the alternatives each time before moving to a new knot, branch, or other protrusion where it could gain some purchase. It used a tall lilac shrub limb to move from the elm trunk to a dead branch that arched up from farther down the tree and then followed that branch to a lower spot on the lilac and on to the ground.

All of this reminded me of the most notorious article I ever wrote that was published in Bird Watcher’s Digest about watching a black rat snake get into and out of a house wren nest built inside one of our back porch posts. It took the snake one hour and forty minutes as it maneuvered up to our second floor, peered into windows, slowly lowered its body down the shingled porch roof and down the post into the nest. When it finally emerged, it worked even harder finding its way out by way of the drain pipe, down the post, and on to ground with many stops as it seemed to think its way past obstacles and over rough spots. As Griffin wrote, “mental events such as consciousness and awareness are indicated by surprising yet effective solutions to changing, unforeseen, and uncommon problems.” Both Dave’s snake and especially mine seemed to show such awareness.

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

Black rat snake in a black walnut tree

It had been a scolding Carolina wren, not the silent flicker parents, who sounded the snake alarm. And it was a Carolina wren who sang along with a mezzo-soprano in Massenet’s opera Werther, which Bruce and I were watching during a hot June afternoon. The wren was busy putting twigs in the gap next to our living room window air conditioner. I checked the pitch of both the soprano and the wren and realized they were performing a kind of duet. Was the wren challenging what it thought was a wren intruder or did it enjoy the music? This time I was reminded of a white-tailed deer that stood still outside our kitchen window years ago when I was playing Mendelssohn’s Elijah. She looked as if she was listening to the music.

Carolina wren at the window

Carolina wren at the window


Our last bird observation went on for much of June when an eastern whip-poor-will chose our yard and Dave’s for his evening and dawn chorusing. A couple times he landed on the flat porch roof outside our bedroom window. Once when I was awakened by him at 5:00 a.m., I put my glasses on and snuck to the window where I had a view of him belting out his calls at deafening volume for about five minutes. He seemed so small to have such a loud mouth and reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s assertive Lorax in the way he stood.

The whip-poor-will was, of course, acting as male whip-poor-wills always do in spring and early summer. I only wondered about him because he started later and stopped earlier than whip-poor-wills are reported to do. But then the life style of these birds is still poorly understood because of their secretive, nocturnal lives. No doubt they too are able to solve unexpected problems with enterprising solutions, the strongest evidence, Griffin concludes, that suggest animal consciousness.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

The Amazing Mayapple

mayapple leaves carpeting ground by Martin LaBa

mayapple leaves carpeting ground by Martin LaBar (Creative Commons BY-NC)

After twelve years, the first mayapples bloomed inside our three-acre deer exclosure. Almost as soon as we put the fence up in March 2001, mayapple leaves popped up in the lower, wet, wooded section of the exclosure. But they were single leaves, not the double leaves with a notch in the middle from which a single, six-petaled, waxy, white flower would emerge.

Last spring on our mountain the first umbrella-shaped mayapple leaves unfurled on March 30, by far the earliest date ever for this wildflower that often doesn’t flower until the second week in May. The frosts of April didn’t wilt the leaves, and on the 18th of April, I found three double-leaved mayapples in the exclosure, each bearing a large flower bud.

The exclosure isn’t the only place mayapples bloom. These clonal plants have formed large colonies beside our road, along Sapsucker Ridge Trail, and beside the Far Field Road. But the largest colony of all covers more than an acre at the Far Field thicket. One leaf even appeared in the middle of the Far Field last spring, but I doubt it will make much headway against the goldenrod and asters.

As usual the first mayapples bloomed along the Far Field Road on April 27, the earliest blooming date ever during our 40 years here, but those mayapples beside our access road didn’t flower until May 1, right in time for May Day.

While the first part of its common name refers to the month it usually flowers in, the “apple” refers to the yellow-green, egg-shaped fruit that is purported to appear in August or September after the plant has fallen down. I say purported because I’ve never actually found a fruit on any of our mayapples. Although the deer allow our mayapples to leaf and flower, they never allow them to fruit. Or maybe the culprit is the occasional eastern box turtle that finds and devours the odd fruit. Apparently, the seeds inside the fruit must go through the gut of a box turtle in order to germinate.

I had always hoped to find enough mayapples to make Euell Gibbons’s mayapple marmalade, which he describes as “ambrosia” in his delightful book on wild foods Stalking the Wild Asparagus. (He also says that “the woods are full of ripe Mayapples.”) Despite having a laxative effect on some people, many have found the taste of mayapple fruit worth the risk. Back in 1612 Captain John Smith described it as “a fruit that the Inhabitants call Maracocks, which is a pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemond (sic).” The Huron Indians gave it to the French explorer Samuel Champlain in 1619, and he thought it tasted like a fig. Early Rhode Island settlers called it “a pleasant fruite (sic).” Gibbons claims that the flavor “is not easily described…When I eat a thoroughly ripe May apple, I am reminded of several tropical fruits, the guava, the passion fruit and the soursop, but I can’t honestly say that it tastes like any of them.”

Girl balancing mayapple blossom on her nose

Girl balancing mayapple blossom on her nose, by talkingplant (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

Even its odor was debated, and Charles F. Saunders, in his book Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada, describes the strong scent of the ripe fruit as a composite of cantaloupe, summer apples, and fox grapes. Gibbons writes that “I love the sweet scent of the ripe fruit with its hint of mysterious muskiness.” But all of this is hearsay as far as I’m concerned.

Despite the appeal of its ripe fruit, its raw leaves and roots are poisonous. Native Americans used the plant to commit suicide and made an insecticide from it to kill corn worms. Today it is an ingredient in laxatives and is useful for the treatment of intestinal worms.

But its most important use derives from its ability to produce podophyllotoxin, which is “the starting material for the semi-synthesis of the anti-cancer drugs etoposide, teniposide and etopophus,” according to Rita M. Moraes, Hemant Lata, Ebru Bedir, Muhammad Maqbool, and Kent Cushman in their paper “The American Mayapple and its Potential for Podophyllotoxin Production.” These compounds have been used to treat lung, testicular, stomach and pancreatic cancers, and some leukemias. It’s also a precursor to a new derivative called CPH 82, which may be useful for treating rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and even malaria.

It’s expensive for pharmaceutical companies to synthesize podophyllotoxin and originally, back in the 1970s, when its anti-cancer properties were discovered, the pharmaceutical companies used the rhizomes of our mayapple—Podophyllum peltatum—to produce podophyllotoxin. In one year they harvested more than 130 tons of American mayapple rhizomes.

Then the scientists found that P. emodi, a perennial rhizomatous herb growing in the understory of Himalayan subalpine forests, contained more podophyllotoxin than P. peltatum, so during the next three decades, they switched to the roots and rhizomes of the Himalayan species. The demand by the international market for this plant quickly turned it into an endangered species.

Mayapple with fruit and leaves spotted with rust

Mayapple with fruit and leaves spotted with rust by OakleyOriginals (Creative Commons BY)

For this reason Moraes, Lata, Bedir, Maqbool, and Cushman used a different extractive method on the leaf blades of our mayapple to produce podophyllotoxin. Unlike ripping up the roots and rhizomes, which destroys the plants, leaf blades are a continually renewable resource. Then, too, our mayapple is common and grows in large colonies from northern Quebec and Minnesota to Florida and Texas and west to Nebraska. It also thrives under wide-ranging growing conditions from the low winter temperatures of the north to the high summer temperatures of the south.

Like many spring wildflowers, mayapples reproduce both sexually and asexually. Sexually, bumblebees and other long-tongued bees cross-pollinate the flowers from one clonal colony to another, while asexually the rhizomes continually expand in dense circular clones, usually crowding out any competing vegetation. The plants are one to one and a half feet tall and consist of sterile, immature, palmate-shaped, single leaves or two to three, palmately-lobed, reproductive leaves.

Both its genus name—Podophyllum—which means “foot leaf,” and its species name peltatum meaning “shield-shaped” refers to its leaves. So too do three of its common names—”umbrella leaf,” “duck’s foot,” and “Puck’s foot” (the forest fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Its fruit has also inspired several alternative names—”Indian apple,” “hog apple,” (wild pigs love it), “wild lemon,” “ground lemon,” and “raccoon berry.”

Its medicinal uses have given it still more nicknames that need more explanation for modern readers. “American mandrake,” the most popular alternative name for mayapple, referred to one of the most powerful of Old World medicinal herbs, mandrake—Mandragora officinarum—that grows in the Mediterranean countries. Its brown root, which penetrates deep into the ground, often branches and resembles a human figure. While neither the plant nor its flower looks like our mayapple, its fruit is a large, fleshy, yellow to orange-colored berry. It was used as a sleeping pill when the sufferer was in pain or being operated on, as a remedy for depression, and as a purgative. Like mayapple, the plant is poisonous.

Mayapple flower

Mayapple flower by M.W. Fisher Jr. (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

“Devil’s apple” may refer to its fruit or, more likely, to its medicinal use, because mandrake is also known as “Satan’s apple.” “Vegetable mercury” probably refers to its similar uses to dog’s mercury (Mercurialis perennis) a poisonous plant that is taken as a purgative or laxative. “Vegetable calomel,” comes from the fact that calomel was used as a purgative and as a fungicide and is also called mercurous chloride, which brings me back to the “vegetable mercury” nickname. “Wild jalop” is similarly confusing. Jalop is a Mexican morning glory used as a purgative, but wild jalop (Ipomoea pandurata), the hated bindweed, is used to treat skin diseases and as a laxative by some herbalists although again it is dangerous to overdose on.

A member of the Barberry family, the mayapple genus has only four species worldwide, our own mayapple and three Asian species. It also has its own fungus—Podophyllum podophylli or the mayapple rust, which only lives and reproduces on mayapple leaves. I find some of the angular, yellow spots on some mayapple leaves every spring.

According to Joan Maloof in her book Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests, the life cycle of the mayapple rust is more complex than that of the mayapple itself. When the mayapple germinates, she writes, a “dark, spiky, club-shaped thing smaller than a grain of sand” also germinates in the forest soil and produces tiny spores. All are in search of mayapple shoots.

When one spore finds a mayapple, it produces a “microscopic, threadlike filament” called a hypha, which is in search of another hypha thread made by a second hypha spore. If they find and merge successfully, they create a hypha with two nuclei in every cell instead of one. They then produce more dark, club-shaped spores which germinate and create a second generation of spores just as the mayapple leaves unfurl. Using wind and/or water, those spores are carried on to the stems and leaves of mayapples. Again the spores germinate and their hyphae look for nutrition and each other.

Under the mayapple parasols by Dave Bonta

Under the mayapple parasols by Dave Bonta

If the spores land on a mayapple stem or vein with sufficient nutrition, they will create more dark, club-shaped structures that will overwinter on dead leaves on the forest floor, but if they “fuse on leaf blades, they will form pockets filled with rust-colored spores,” Maloof writes, that cannot live through the winter. However, she adds that they “can reinfect the plant, germinate, and eventually form the dark overwintering clubs.” The yellow spots on the leaves are a signal that the fungus has used up the food in the leaf cells and infected the leaves. But Maloof calls this “Mother Nature’s yellow and green abstract art work,” rejecting the negative connotation of the word “infect.”

Maloof reminds us, after her discussion of mayapple rust, that a forest is more than its trees. “And in ways we do not yet fully understand, these small things may determine the lives and deaths of trees.” And not only those of trees, but of humans too, in the case of our amazing medicinal American mayapple.