Patience is essential to enjoying wild creatures
Several years ago as I was writing my book, "Butterflies in the Backyard" (2004), I put into practice what I was preaching.
In order to attract butterflies, I began providing the plants females require for egg laying. These plants are called host plants, and many species lay their eggs on only a few closely related species. Caterpillars typically eat only the leaves of these host plants.
So the key to attracting butterflies goes far beyond providing nectar-bearing flowers. In fact, the proper host plants for the desired species of butterflies are essential. Monarchs, for example, require milkweeds. Thus, I encourage common milkweeds wherever it grows, and I've been splitting and transplanting butterfly milkweed for years.
With that in mind, I planted some Dutchman's pipe (Aristolochia macrophylla) several years ago. My goal was to attract pipevine swallowtails. These butterflies lay their eggs only on the underside of the leaves of several species of pipevine. For four years I was disappointed -- no eggs, no caterpillars, no pipevine swallowtails.
A few days ago while cutting grass, elongated shadows under the big pipevine leaves caught my attention. I looked closer and found a vigorous colony of pipevine caterpillars. It took five years, but finally my patience was rewarded.
Pipevine caterpillars are quite distinctive -- black, fleshy, with soft orange tubercles along the body.
Unfortunately, there's a cultural tendency to kill caterpillars on sight. They're not particularly attractive, and they eat the leaves on trees and garden plants, so they must be bad. Or so goes the flawed logic.
Sure, some caterpillars are a nuisance and should be controlled. Tent caterpillars and larvae of gypsy moths come immediately to mind. But most caterpillars are beneficial. They provide food for birds and many other small predators, and those that survive transform into the butterflies we all love. So spare the caterpillars. Without them, we would have no butterflies.
Unlike monarch butterflies, which migrate to Mexico and overwinter as adults, pipevine swallowtails overwinter in the chrysalis stage. Adults emerge in April. Next year I expect to finally see pipevine swallowtails flying through my yard.
Reveling in rewards
My experience with the pipevines I planted five years ago reminded me of a valuable lesson -- patience brings great rewards. Here are some more examples of the fruits that patience bears:
UWhen I first planted trumpet creeper as a hummingbird nectar source, it took four years for the first flowers to bloom. Now I've got dozens of plants that produce thousands of flowers from June through August.
UThe most successful deer hunters are often those who spend days patiently sitting in their deer stands. And during those long days, they get glimpses of bobcats, bears and coyotes that non-hunters can only imagine.
UAnglers usually endure long spells of boredom between strikes of keepers. Only on TV fishing shows is the action nonstop.
UThe first time I hung a suet feeder, birds ignored it for months. Then suddenly, as if someone had flipped a switch, they developed a taste for suet they've never lost.
UA garden of perennial wildflowers requires three to four years to bloom profusely. But after it's established and matures, it maintains itself and provides years of enjoyment.
UTrees obviously require patient caretakers. Whether the goal is shade, fruit, nuts, or timber, the time required for trees to pay off is usually measured in decades rather than years.
UPatience is also a requirement for lifelong birders. I'm still waiting to see a Swainson's warbler. And the conservation community endured nearly 60 years between ivory-billed woodpecker sightings.
UConservation in general usually measures its progress in decades. In the early 1970s, for example, alligators, brown pelicans, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and Kirkland's warblers were endangered. Today, alligators and brown pelicans are common, and bald eagles, peregrines and Michigan's Kirkland's warblers have made amazing comebacks. And just a few years ago there were no free flying California condors. Today, more than 100 fly in California and Arizona, and another 100 are breeding in captivity.
Patience is a remarkable virtue, one that invariably rewards conservationists at every level.
XSend questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, R.D. 5, Cameron, W.Va. 26033 or via e-mail to email@example.com.