Backyard Adventures with Nature

Birds: robins | pheasants | tragic bluejay

Bugs and Insects, etc.: butterflies | ladybugs (with images) | ants | mosquitoes | spiders

Plants: maple trees


Note: it is illegal to keep wild native animals (mammals, reptiles, and native bird species) without a permit.

  • Baby robins. I think many people have a classic "fallen baby robin" story. Robins aren't the brightest of birds (one doofus built its nest right next to the front door), and their pretty blue eggs and little babies seem to frequently wind up on the ground. If the baby is capable of flying even a bit, you may want to leave it alone. One succesful strategy I've used is to put a wide cylinder of chicken wire around a baby robin out on the lawn. The parents come feed the youngster. At night, when the cats come out, I would take the robin back inside. I've heard of people feeding baby robins cut up lunchmeat (such as bologna). That's not a bad idea. I've fed very young ones boiled egg (what might be a traditional Japanese thing to feed baby birds) and I've also gone hunting for earthworms. Things that are long, thin, and high in protein (worms, thin slices of lunchmeat) would be the most efficient food for a young robin. (And yes, if I remember right, they are kinda cute when they open their beaks wide hoping for food.) The last baby robin I cared for I've often wondered about - the bird had a crooked upper beak. I wonder if it survived to maturity.

  • The tragic pheasants. Where I grew up, there used to be pheasants nesting in the cemetery next door (pheasants are, by the way, imported birds). When startled, they would let out a distinctive screeching cry, a bit like a rooster, and flap away. The cemetery unfortunately sold off its last bit of undeveloped "open space," which promptly became a shopping plaza (sigh), and the pheasants became a thing of the past. I remember there was once a pheasant who had built a nest right near the house. One night I heard a terrible yowling of a cat. The next day, there was a pheasant skeleton, lots of feathers, and broken, empty eggs. I was pretty pissed at loose cats for a while. Another time, a pheasant built its nest near a neighbor's house, and was scared away by a lawnmower and never came back. I had childish hopes of hatching the eggs, but this was an unreasonable expectation given the lack of a proper incubator. Who knows what I would've done with pheasant chicks, anyway....

  • Tragic bluejay. Hardly had I put up these pages, but a fallen baby bluejay arrived in my life, to my deep regret. It had run from a routine lawnmowing out to the sidewalk, near the road. Catching it was suprisingly easy - it ran right into a large goldfish net. But unlike a baby robin, the bluejay could climb out of the chickenwire, and the parents weren't approaching to try to feed it. Eventually we let it loose near a brush pile. I remembered the eaten pheasant and got worried about nighttime wild animals, though, so we went back to catch it -- strangely, it was caught under a branch and looked trapped. Between trying to capture it, and me accidentally kicking a branch that hit it, or perhaps something had gone wrong already when it got trapped, the baby bluejay was paralyzed. Its feet dragged behind it; it couldn't walk, run, climb, perch. We packaged it up in a box (and had to deal with a steady stream of tiny bird mites -- another caution for anyone dealing with wild birds) and dropped it off at animal rescue, but with its condition, it's likely to be put down. I wished that I had left it alone, and let nature take its own course.


  • Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly. I once successfully kept a tiger swallowtail caterpillar, back in the Midwest. I can't remember the leaves I fed it, but it successfully turned itself into a chrysalis, and hung suspended for a very, very long time. I think it overwintered like that in the house! In the spring, worried that I'd forget about the container (like I kept doing) and one day find a starved, dead adult butterfly, I opened the container and set it outside in a bush. One day the chrysalis was empty. I never saw the adult.

  • The tragic Black Swallowtail Butterflies. This is a cautionary tale of unfortunate black swallowtail butterfly larvae. One year I saw a beautiful black swallowtail butterfly laying its eggs on my dill plants -- unusual because the garden is near the city of Boston. I watched as day by day the larvae hatched and grew a bit bigger. But slowly, they were disappearing one by one, until one day there weren't any left. In retrospect, I think ants were eating them. If I ever see black swallowtail eggs on the dill again, I'm going to take them indoors and feed them dill where it's safe.

  • larva - so ugly it's cuteSuccessful rearing of ladybug larvae. Twice now, I have taken ladybug larvae indoors. These particular larvae look (as several sites put it) sort of like tiny black alligators or crocodiles, with spikes and orange markings (markings and coloration vary by ladybug variety), and six stubby legs near the front of the body. The peppermint plant (in a pot, mind you; peppermint is a nasty weed) seems to get lots of them, and adult ladybugs seem to like hanging out on the perniciously spreading tansy I foolishly planted one year. Well, this year I found one larvae sitting indoors on the kitchen table (perhaps from a peppermint cutting, perhaps stuck to someone's shirt); one that got stuck in the dog's fur, and one lost on a hops vine. I took all three, put them in a large plastic container, and added some aphid-covered leaves from the cherry tree. (That's where the big black ants have their favorite aphid farms in early summer (they started farming aphids on my scallions in fall!). I had to be very careful to knock all the big black ants off, because I think one thing they do is patrol around to kill anything that might like to harm their aphids, and I suspect to them ladybug larvae may be just another kill-on-sight target. These particular aphids are black, some winged, some not.) I replaced the leaves once or twice over the course of captivity. I observed also that the larvae seem to occasionally go into "wander" mode, such as when disturbed. They then run around at a rapid clip and seem to "run away" from aphids they bump into! At last they settle down on a leaf and then they start picking up aphids and sucking the juices out, one by one, like good little ladybugs. Within a day or two the larvae had gone though their last molt. pupaThen, a day or two later, they attached themselves to the plastic (seemingly preferring it to the leaves!) and became pupae. To this day I am annoyed that I miss the crucial brief time period in which they shed their larval skin - the black stuff with the tufts. In a brief window of time, they somehow manage to get the skin all the way down to their "ankles," like crumpled pants -- it must involve some undulation of the bodies or something, because their little stubby legs at the front of their bodies sure couldn't push it all the way down. Moreover, when the skin is shed, the insect-like legs go with the skin! What's left are little bumps where the six larval legs used to be. Then they gradually become encased in a hard shell (orange, with black spots), and the transformation to an orange ladybug takes several days. spotless adultOddly, all my captive ladybugs have come out pale orange with no spots -- though apparently the spots and deep orange color come out when the shell dries. Still, the ones I had were spot-less hours later, even out in the sun. I hope I'm not doing something wrong. Anyway, I worry a bit about the "wild" larvae -- those big black ants seem to patrol everywhere, and I can't imagine they'd be kind to ladybug larvae.

  • The quest for queen ants. I've long had a thing for ant colonies. I used to have a nice Japanese plastic ant farm, and years later I got one of the American flat-planed varieties. As a kid I always wanted a "queen ant," and lately I know how to get one. In March (I think it's March) of most years in eastern Massachusetts, I have had pretty good luck stumbling across wonderful brown queen ants. They are somewhat smaller than carpenter ants, have a relatively big, rounded abdomen (the "butt"), move at a dignified pace (instead of the rapid scurrying of the annoying big black ants), and have a beautiful golden-brown amber/deep-honey sheen. Often they still have wings on their backs (dead giveaway), and one even had a male winged ant trying to mate with her while she walked around (I think I have footage of some winged males fighting on the ground, too). [9/17/02 I just found 2 queen ants clinging to a screen window. These are a different species of ant: pale gold, small, with the male about the size of a tiny parasite clinging to the back. The workers of this species invaded the stove once - they are very tiny, just a few millimeters in length, a beautiful pale gold/light amber, and love oil and sugar.] Anyway, soon after arriving on the ground, the queen sheds her wings (I think she may help the process along with her mandibles, but can't remember) and starts hunting for a place to build her first nest. In the antfarm it helps to create a shadowy depression in the dirt to encourage her to "dig there." Eventually she'll carve out a small chamber and start laying eggs. She cares for the eggs as they eventually turn into the little grubby babies, which then pupate into adults. The adults are (if my memory serves me correctly) about half the size of the queen, with proportionally small abdomens. They work to care for the queen, their siblings, and to expand the nest. The little family seems to survive ok on neglect, so long as the dirt is kept reasonably moist (but not soggy). The flat-plane ant farms are unfortunately poorly set up for easy addition and removal of food. The removal is important because otherwise the uneaten food will rot. As an adventurous young fool I once tried giving one set of ants some dissolved vitamins, and it killed them. :( In any case, if you're determined to have a queen ant, rather than dig up the yard looking for one, you might wait til spring.

  • Mosquitoes have their uses.... I've been known to leave out containers of water hoping for mosquito larvae. Why? To feed pet fish, of course. (I've fed em to goldfish and betta fish, though once a goldfish died a few days later ... I'm not sure why, though I'm a bit worried about rumors the larvae can puncture fish innards. Still, carnivorous fish seem to love em, in any case, and they are a natural food for some types of fish.) The larvae look like hairy black question marks floating at the surface. At the slightest disturbance, they squirm their way down into the depths, using an inchworm's spasmodic twitching to move. When caught in a (very) fine net and rinsed in water, they writhe in a very icky kind of wormy way. They live just fine in a small jar of tap water (unlike fish, who need conditioned water), and you should tightly cover over the container with plastic wrap. You can even store the container in the fridge, which makes the larvae sluggish. Eventually they reach their final larval molt, at which point they look very bulbous and a bit clumsy, and soon after that you start getting adult airborne mosquitoes (why the plastic wrap is important -- and no, they don't need air holes). In any case, the one good thing about setting out water for mosquitoes is that, after harvesting some for the fish, you can tip over the water and kill all the larvae. Unfortunately, it will also kill off any other insect larvae in the water, but odds are 99% of all the larvae will be mosquitoes, so ... oh well. In this day and age of West Nile virus, it's probably a good thing to make sure none reach maturity. And it really is satisfying watching a betta gulp down mosquito larvae... the fish actual chews a few times. Now, that is nice revenge.

  • Spiders. There are all sorts: web spinners, creepy black-widow shaped spiders, stocky hunting spiders, and the ones that build thick webs with a tunnel into their personal spider lair. In rescuing spiders from the house, never stick multiple spiders in the same jar. They kill each other (as I found out). I've heard of almost-tame spiders, but I've never really wanted one myself. Anyway, if you find a spider that's built a web, it's fun (perhaps cruel?) to find a small insect and try to get it stuck in the web (I like to do this with insects I dislike, the ones that eat my plants, which I would kill by other means anyway). Webs are fragile, though, so a large rambunction insect (most ants, for example, or relatively large moths) will wreck the web and escape; tiny bugs like aphids, however, are difficult to adhere to the web. (Last spider-feeding I did was helping a green bottle fly (housefly) get tangled in a small spider's web in the kitchen - I felt guilty afterward.)

  • Maple trees adventures. Well, saplings. I had this crazy notion I'd bonsai some maples, even though I know very little about bonsai techniques, and I'm too lazy to do it right anyway. As a kid (long time ago), I had a bunch of little saplings. One of them was a mutant: instead of two "first" leaves, it had three! I was excited about this mutant. One day, the seedlings started to die. I discovered little white wormlike larvae burrowed into them and all throughout the soil: fungus gnat larvae. My precious mutant maple tree was among the victims. Ugh! I've hated fungus gnats ever since. In another maple sapling tale, I had a nice little sapling growing in the sandbox (it was planted 1 inch from another sapling I planted, which tells you how little I knew about gardening as a small kid). Anyway, one of the main branches got broken and was attached only by a strip of bark. In desperation, I fitted it back into place and taped it together. Hey presto, it stuck, it healed, the trees grew rapidly, and eventually my parents had to kill the 5-ft trees so they wouldn't become a nuisance. But I've remembered the trick with the tape splint, and I've used it on other woody-stemmed plants to save broken branches.

    Garden Scents to Remember