Thursday, August 30, 2007

A Simple Food Chain

I have a beautyberry bush (Callicarpa americana) in my yard. I think it is comprised of more than one individual. I think I remember planting more than one. I wish now, as I look as the thick tangle of stems and downward-curving branches, that I had planted them farther apart. I got those plants from the side of a dirt road in Doyline. I was bird-watching, and had ventured down the road which I knew ended at a little open space at the edge of Lake Bistineau named "Tadpole" by the locals. The right fork of the road went to Tadpole; the left fork went to a really big house that was visible from Tadpole. Folks said that house belonged to Coach Roach's brother. Folks also said Mr. Roach didn't like people on his road.

I'd been to Tadpole dozens of times when I lived out there. I never saw anyone come or go on that road. Before this day, I'd always been on foot, and I never felt like walking an unknown distance to see a house that supposedly belonged to a mean hermit. But this day I was riding in a truck, so when we reached the fork and discovered that the path leading to Tadpole was overgrown and impassable, we decided to venture down Mr. Roach's forbidden driveway. The forest edge created by the dirt road made for incredible birding. We crept slowly down the road, stopping every so many yards to listen for something new. We got to the end of the drive to see an electronic gate, and beyond it the biggest house I've ever seen.

Seeing three cars parked up at the house, we figured we'd soon be explaining to someone what we were doing there, so we pulled to the side of the drive and continued pishing, kissing, and broadcasting a recording of a never-ending Screech Owl call in an attempt to illicit mobbing behavior from unsuspecting birds. Another vehicle came down the road and entered the gate. The driver waved to us as he passed. He came back out a few minutes later, and passed us by, waving again. Not long after that we decided we'd counted every bird we could from that location, and began to drive out. Going slowly so as to hear if something new was singing, we spotted some beautyberry sprouts right at the edge of the road. I got out and pulled a few plants up with my hands. I put the roots in a soda bottle with a little water, and went on with my birding adventure.

I planted the beautyberry that evening. I remember the stem of the biggest sprout had snapped and even though I thought it was lost, I tried to mend it with scotch tape. Three years later, I can still find the stem with the scotch tape bandage. The plants are loaded down with berries. The weight of the berries causes the branches to sag, giving the bush a sort of fountain-spray appearance. The mockingbird whom eats there daily finds it difficult to stay on the branch as he forages. He often falls, and catches himself on another branch, falls again, and so on and so forth until he either has had his fill of berries, or tired of the Mr. Bean routine. I don't know which.

I planted those plants specifically because I wanted birds to have berries to eat. I am happy when I see the mockingbird coming to the bush, but I'm also a little happy when he falls down…because I think he ate my Spicebush caterpillars.

I had collected two Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars and brought them to live on my spicebushes. I observed them daily (and nightly, since I read that's when they eat). I watched them morph from small blobs of bird droppings into green freaks with giant false eyespots. I watched them change from green freaks with giant false eyespots to orange freaks with giant false eyespots - one a day earlier than the other. And then they disappeared - one a day earlier than the other. I had hoped they had gone off to form their chrysalides. But when I saw the mockingbird shopping around my little spicebushes, I feared my little caterpillars had been somebody's dinner.

So I have mixed feelings about my neighbor the mockingbird. And I'm having second thoughts about the beautyberry's role in my 'landscaping plan.'

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