Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Candy-Striped Leafhopper

The candy-striped leafhopper is only about three eighths of an inch long so you may not notice it despite its bright colors.

But when you get close enough it is easy to see that it is one of North America's prettiest insects. It's technically known as Graphocephala coccineal, but has lots of common names that reflect its flashy looks: red-banded leafhopper, red-and-blue leafhopper, and scarlet-and-green leafhopper.

It's also called a shooter or sharpshooter because of its behavior, but which behavior is debated and there are a few different explanations. They may seem like sharpshooters because they damage leaves with tiny bullet-like holes. Or because they are good at disappearing when disturbed -- like army marksmen evading enemies.

The best explanation probably is because they shoot drops of liquid from their rear ends -- and with audible popping sounds. Candy-striped leafhoppers feed by sucking on plant juices and they take in a lot of fluid to get the nutrients. They get rid of the excess by forcibly shooting liquid droplets from their butts!

Many field guides say that candy-striped leafhoppers are meadow and woodland dwellers, but this one (and many of its kind) live on the plants that line the streets of New York City.

There is more information about urban insects in my book, A Field Guide to Urban Wildlife of North America, which will be published by Stackpole Books in spring 2011. 

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Gray Catbird

This gray catbird has been eating berries and has juice on its face!

Gray catbirds usually stay hidden in dense bushes, so we hear them more than we see them. They make a catlike mewing sound that gives them their common name. The one in the photo came out of hiding to scold my cat. They are creative singers, too; they imitate the songs of other birds, and sometimes the sounds of machines and people.

The catbird, Dumetella carolinensis, is about 9 inches long, and gray, with a dark cap on the head, and a black tail with a  chestnut-colored patch underneath.

They are summer birds in New York City, where they nest in places as urban as my Brooklyn garden -- within sight of the Manhattan skyline.

There is more information about urban birds in my book, A Field Guide to Urban Wildlife of North America, which will be published by Stackpole Books in spring 2011. 

Sunday, June 13, 2010


The linden tree, Tilia americana, is also called basswood, lime tree, white wood, and bee tree. 

This blog is normally about wildlife, but I'm taking a moment to praise the linden trees that are blossoming in New York right now. In a city not noted for smelling good, the event is a delightful occasion.

Linden trees smell fresh, green, flowery, and sweet -- a little like melon, a little like honey. The smell wafts hauntingly around the trees and spreads on warm breezes. It makes me stop and inhale. It smells so good that I look forward to passing each linden on my daily route, especially a big old tree on the northeast corner of Central Park West at 66th street; its flower-covered branches droop over the sidewalk and diffuse perfume all around.

Lindens are native to eastern North America. They are common in cities, suburbs, and forests, so a lot of places smell good right now. Closely related trees, also called lindens, grow throughout the Northern hemisphere. They are prized for their beauty. Their wood is especially valued by carvers -- linden wood decorates the great cathedrals of Europe. Linden leaves and flowers are used for perfumes and teas. Honey made from linden flowers has a light minty herbal taste that is renowned among honeys.

Aromatherapists use linden to "calm and relax the body and the mind." We could use more of that. We should plant more lindens.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Blue Jays Plant Trees

A blue jay, Cyanocitta cristata, occasionally comes to my backdoor in Brooklyn for a snack of peanuts. 

Blue jays are so common that we sometimes fail to notice how flashy they are. They are from 9 to 12 inches long, boldly patterned in blues, black, gray, and white, and have a sporty crest that is held flat when the bird is calm and extended when the bird is excited. Their common call is a loud attention-getting jaay jaay.

They’re not just beautiful – they’re smart. A scientist working with blue jays reported watching a caged bird make a tool by ripping off and rolling up strips of paper from its cage floor; it used the tool to reach seeds that had fallen outside the cage and pull them back until they were close enough to eat. Other caged blue jays in the laboratory picked up the trick by observational learning and soon the entire colony was doing it.

Their intelligence may have developed along with their complicated food caching system and the need to remember the locations of buried nuts. Blue jays are scatter hoarders – like squirrels, they bury surplus nuts, mainly beechnuts and acorns, one at a time, and return to consume them later. The strategy of scattering the food in many hiding places minimizes loss if others find the stash. 

Lucky for humans and lots of other animals, blue jays bury many more nuts than they eventually return to. Some of the buried nuts germinate and sprout into new oak and beech trees. Of the many American animals and birds that eat acorns and beechnuts, the blue jay is the most likely to unintentionally plant new trees. Blue jays take nuts relatively far away, often more than a few hundred yards from the parent tree; they push them into the soil and they cover them. They bury a lot of nuts, and they take nuts to recently burned places and into open grassland, thus introducing trees to new areas.

Scientists think that blue jays planted oak and beech trees throughout eastern North America at the end of the last Ice Age in the wake of the retreating glaciers and helped regenerate forests on the newly exposed treeless lands. 

Today blue jays are still great dispersers of seeds from increasingly isolated fragments of woodlands. Their role is so crucial to sustaining oak woods that they are considered a keystone species -- that is, one with an unusually critical ecosystem function, without which the system would be in danger of collapsing. All this and friendly to humans too!

The next time you see one -- give it an extra peanut. It’s not only beautiful. It’s a very hardworking bird!

There is more information about blue jays in my book, A Field Guide to Urban Wildlife of North America, which will be published by Stackpole Books in spring 2011.