Thursday, October 31, 2013

Woolly Logic, Caterpillar Division

We found this guy on a path in Marymoor Park, Redmond, WA.
Just in time for Halloween, here's a caterpillar that dresses up as a tiger but is known as a woolly bear.

Woolly bears are found throughout North America, except in the most northern latitudes. They're one of the most familiar and well-liked caterpillars; it was fondly called a woolly bear even back in Colonial times. (Southerners, however, call them "woolly worms.") Thanks to its fuzz, this larva enjoys an affection not granted to its bare green and brown cousins.

Part of a woolly bear's appeal must also spring from its dogged caterpillar-on-a-mission behavior. Woolly bears catch our eye in autumn because that's when they trundle across sidewalks, paths, and roads, seriously boring ahead as if bearing important messages that must be delivered as soon as possible.

This woolly bear's curled-up self-defense certainly
dissuaded me from devouring it.
Nothing distracts a woolly bear from its task.

If you pick it up, it will coil tightly, under the assumption that you are a bird who wants to eat it but will give up once its potential meal turns into an unappetizing burl of bristles.

It will stay curled up until it figures the coast is clear, then will abruptly straighten out and resume its determined trek.

What these busy caterpillars are actually doing is looking for a safe place to hide for the winter. A woolly bear spends the cold months curled up under bark or tucked among rocks or logs. Its entire body shuts down, even its circulatory system. A natural antifreeze permeates its tissues, protecting it from damage in freezing temperatures.

Adult tiger moth, Wikipedia
In spring, the caterpillar emerges from this hibernation to spin a silken cocoon, shedding its bristles and incorporating them into the fabric, too. From this cocoon emerges the "tiger": a golden Isabella Tiger Moth.

The moth quickly finds a mate and lays eggs. In most of its range, this species hatches out into a spring generation of caterpillars that chow down on herbaceous plants (wild species, not garden plants or crops--probably another reason it's so well liked).

The spring generation then pupates, ultimately hatching into a second generation of moths that produces a second batch of caterpillars.

It's these summer caterpillars that chug across paths in fall, grabbing our attention with their cinnamon-and-black-velvet cloaks. They're also responsible for inspiring a charming bit of folklore: the width of a woolly bear's brown band is said to predict the severity of the upcoming winter. A wide band foretells a mild winter, while a narrow band warns of a harsh season ahead.

There's no scientific basis for this belief; studies haven't revealed any correlation between band width and weather. How much brown is on a caterpillar has more to do with its age: older caterpillars have wider brown bands. Caterpillars that feed in regions where fall weather has been damp tend to have narrower brown bands than caterpillars that frolicked in dry regions.

This woolly bear is not a woolly bear.
One of the first attempts at sussing out the relationship between bristles and blizzards took place in the 1940s and 1950s, when an entomologist named C.H. Curran spent some time collecting woolly bears, measuring their bands, and calculating the average.

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, Curran was simply larking about while enjoying an excuse to take in the beauty of fall foliage in the Bear Mountain area of New York, knowing his sample sizes were too small to yield useful data. He, his wife, and his friends dubbed themselves "The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear." Apparently his caterpillars boasted relatively broad brown bands in those years, which were marked by winters that were milder than usual, confirming that the folklore was true in many people's estimations.

Of course, nothing (least of all scientific proof) will stop people from believing what they want to believe. Especially when it involves furry caterpillars. In some places it's thought that not only does the degree of brown banding foretell winter weather--the direction of caterpillar travel is a clue, too. A southbound caterpillar is telling you winter will be terrible, while a northbound one believes that winter will be mild. (That would mean peregrinations precisely prognosticate precipitation.)

"I'm heading south. No! North! No...wait..."
Although woolly bears are probably no better than TV meteorologists at predicting the weather, they're apparently aces at balancing their intake of toxic substances to rid themselves of parasites.

 A recent study showed that woolly bears infected with fly larvae (which rudely devour their host as they grow) increase their consumption of alkaloid-containing leaves, which kills off their unwanted guests.

If you just can't get enough of woolly bears, you can find woolly-bear festivals, complete with costume contests, woolly-bear races, and weather predicting, in several towns nationwide, including Vermilion, Ohio; Banner Elk, North Carolina; Beattyville, Kentucky; Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; and Oil City, Pennsylvania. Or start your own Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear.




Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Top Ten Terrifying Terrors of Terror in Childhood (Mine)

There's no telling what's going to freak out a particular child.

For years, I had cartoonist Roz Chast's piece "On Display at the Children's House of Horrors" tacked to my bulletin board, which depicted these hair-raising things in her signature neurotic, quaky line: The Hall of Snowsuits, The Plate Where All the Different Foods Are Touching One Another, Live Demonstration of the Shampoo, and the Gallery of Inexplicable Fears, which included a butterfly, a pineapple, a kite, a fan, and a blow dryer.

The Resident Teen, not afraid of eventually hopping back on her horse even after falling this weekend and suffering a concussion, is scared of bees and wasps, and as a three-year-old developed a sudden fear of cows strolling into her bedroom at night. Cows are not legion on the streets of Seattle, but there you go. (Fortunately, a  hastily drawn sign declaring "Cows Not Allowed" with a cow depicted in the circle-and-slash "not allowed" logo made bedtime peaceful once again.)

Here, in one more Halloween Hurrah for the month of October, is my own list of the Top 10 Things that either scared the bejesus out of me as a child or induced extended anxiety (in addition to the more typical anxieties about the dark, loss of parents, school exams, gym class, clowns, and the like).

1. Strange Toilets


Aiiiieeeeee. There was nothing scarier than commodes not located at home or at least in a house. Public ones were large, loud, and much noisier. And you usually had to face a battalion of them, all hiding behind doors and just waiting to devour you.

I truly felt deep empathy for all the kids of today whom I've squired into modern public bathrooms with automatic-flush toilets. I learned to carry duct tape with me--armed with a piece of duct tape to place over the sensor, a child can ensure that he or she can use the privy in peace, without it flushing every two seconds, then, upon completion, rip off the duct tape and run like hell out the door.


2. Cement Mixers


Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Cement mixers were nothing more than supersized strange toilets set loose upon the world on gigantic wheels. They appeared arbitrarily, growling and grinding, and could make paste of you in the blink of a sparrow's eye.

At some point cement mixers began appearing in colors and patterns other than utilitarian gray--a cheerful rainbow-polka-dotted one prowled our neighborhood, but it did not fool me; I knew it was a wolf in sheep's clothing.


3. Cinder the Collie


Cinder was a lovely black and white collie owned by one of my mom's best friends. She was completely harmless, and I liked her. However, when you're small and eye to eye with a dog, they're pretty scary. Especially when you find yourself backed into a corner of the yard, pressed against a fence, weeping, while the dog barks at you and dances back and forth, darting toward you every time you try to get past it and run into the house.

My dog trainer friend D. loves this story. "She was just doing her job as a sheepdog," she told me. "She was herding a small, bleating object and making it stay in one place."


4. Disemboweling by Giraffe


I loved animals (despite the Cinder experience) and read about them voraciously. This pursuit frequently turned up alarming facts. Such as the one about how a giraffe's kick is enough to disembowel a lion. I had a nightmare one night in which a giraffe cornered my older brother in the house. The gory scene was thankfully hidden by a conveniently placed floral sofa. I forgot about this particular dread for decades, at least until I had to sign a waiver before working as a docent at a zoo that called for acknowledging that I wouldn't hold them liable if I were gored, bitten, trampled, or otherwise injured by an animal.

5. Madge


Oh, Madge, the wisecracking manicurist of Palmolive dish-washing liquid fame! Any 1960s kid who spent time watching afternoon reruns of "Bugs Bunny" cartoons took in dozens of repeat episodes involving Madge chatting to customers who were alarmed to find they were soaking their fingertips in dish soap.

Poor Madge; what was it about her that gave me the creeps? I vaguely recall feeling unsettled at these peeks into what adult life was supposedly like because I didn't know how you learned to do all those things; it was the same weird vibeI got from coffee commercials in which hostesses made terrible java and visitors made faces after one sip. What was I going to do? I didn't know how to make coffee.

Or maybe it was the thought of doing all those dishes. Luckily, somebody invented dishwashers in the meantime.


6. "How Dry I Am" Jug


This Stoneware Jug of Menace resided on a high shelf in the family room, along with other bric-a-brac. I don't know how it came into my parents' possession, as they were not drinkers, but I have a sneaking feeling it was given to them by my uncle, collector of truly weird things.

When you lifted it up, it began plunking out the tune "How Dry I Am" in deep, echoing notes. When I was tiny, this alarming sound was somehow connected to the idea that I could fall into the jug and disappear. (See also "Strange Toilets" and "Cement  Mixers.") Don't worry. I got over it. I wonder where this creepy object has gone.


7. Tornadoes


Photo courtesy Wikipedia
Tornadoes! Right! OK! There are many perfectly legitimate reasons to be afraid of tornadoes! Like, they destroy towns, carry cows for miles, drive straws through tree trunks, and stuff.

However, we did not live in Tornado Alley. Long Island didn't suffer many tornadoes. So there was no reason, really, to pore over the "tornado" entry in the World Book Encyclopedia, to figure out which corner of the basement was the safest one to be in based on the typical trajectory of a tornado, or to sit up in bed in the dark fretting that a tornado would suddenly roar out of a calm summer night sky and rampage down the street.

8. The Crescent Moon


The crescent moon? What could possibly be scary about that?

Well, nothing, really, except the crescent moon has a really sharp hook at both ends, and sometimes sits very low in the sky. There was the chance that if you went outside in the dark (a scary enough prospect in its own right), you could get hooked on the lower point and carried off into the sky. I mean, it could happen.

Especially when you don't know that the moon is actually about 239,000 miles away.


9. Lightning


So, again (see "Tornadoes") there are many perfectly good reasons to fear lightning. What's not to fear? It's huge, it's electrical, it's sizzling hot, and it's random. If it wants to crash through your bedroom window at night and zap you, it can--as witnessed firsthand by my own grandfather, who was sleeping in a hut at Rockaway Beach on a bed with an iron frame and was thrown from it when lightning entered the window and struck it.

Thunderstorms were frequent and fierce on Long Island in summer, so there was plenty of opportunity to cower in attempts to appease the weather gods. My grandmother (not the one married to the lightning-struck grandfather) told us about a brother back in Germany who had been killed by lightning (apparently while walking across a field with a metal farm implement over his shoulder--don't do this!) and would not allow us to handle metal cutlery or Matchbox cars in the house while a thunderstorm raged.

No wonder I seriously thought that turning on the bedroom light and lying stock-still for two hours straight would prevent my being struck at night during a storm.

10. Blitzableiters


A Blitzableiter is simply a lightning rod in German. So you'd think a lightning-loathing child would embrace a Blizableiter (not literally, but figuratively, especially during a storm). "Blitzableiter" is also a funny word to say.

I think that's how its frequent use got started in our family; my Dad was German, and my parents were good friends with a Swiss family, and the word got bandied about amongst them just because it was a funny word (another favorite was Schnabel, German for "spout," which cropped up in reference to a teapot and was jokingly pronounced "schnobbly").

I recall being told there was a Blitzableiter in a dark room in the back of our friends' house, and since I didn't know what one was, it could be anything, most likely a menacing anything. The phrase "Here comes der Blitzableiter!" uttered by an older brother sent shudders down my spine.

Happy Halloween--and watch out for that there moon.




Monday, October 21, 2013

Autumn in Cottage Lake

Azure skies alternate with heavy cloaks of fog. The valley between here and Duvall is often filled with a vanilla custard of mist. Webs made by spiders the size of dimes lace the trees, and fireworks of red and gold blaze against the stately darkness of the Douglas-firs and other evergreens. One of the prettiest autumns ever. I go around one corner and feel as if I'm back in the New England of my college years; I go down another street, shuffling through leaves, and am transported back to the Long Island suburb of my childhood, knowing that the cold, damp walk will end in a brightly lit and welcoming home.

Native vine maples and other species in a garden

On the neighborhood loop walk

Red plum and (possibly) aspen in fall color

A weeping species of Japanese maple

Aspen on bright, warm day early in the season

Morning dew nearly all gone

The Douglas-firs resemble Ents on the march on foggy mornings

The entire garden is filled with these pinwheels in the morning

Spirea dressing up already in Christmas colors

The rather saucy mushrooms springing up in the front yard

Blueberry bushes blaze

View from office window, red maple in foreground

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A Dozen Scary Children's-Book Illustrations for October

I love autumn. I love the crisp air and the fiery foliage and even the ridiculousness of all the Halloween decor, the black arched-back cats and hollow-eyed pumpkins and beady-eyed bats. The images got me to thinking about children's-book illustrations that scared me when I was a kid, the kind of illustrations that forced me to look at them again and again, to revisit the scenes that gave me chills.

Of course, what's scary to one person is pablum to another. The Resident Teen, for example, is completely unafraid of the 1,100-pound, unpredictable beast that she rides, yet is terrified of bees. My husband will stride fearlessly through a field with a bull in it, but puppets give him the creeps. My dad was a soldier and the bravest man in the world, but he couldn't look at a diagram of an eyeball without fainting.

So Beware! Full disclosure is that my one dozen selected Scary Children's-Book Illustrations are exceedingly tame and are probably pretty unlikely to raise a single hair on your neck. But they gave me the shivers when I was little. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs was my all-time favorite book between the ages of 3 and 7. I pored over the stunning images by illustrator Rudolph F. Zallinger. This scene, in which Allosaurus attacks my then-favorite dinosaur Brontosaurus, absolutely terrified me. This blurry reproduction of the painting spares you the sharp rawness of the wound and the blood flowing from it, but the poor Brontosaurus's grimace is evidence enough of its suffering. 

Whenever I read this book, I alternated between staring at this page in fascinated horror and skipping past it with my eyes shut. The obliviousness of the other dinosaurs in the background disturbed me, too: Why didn't they step in to help? (Clearly I hadn't yet understood that that was Not the Dinosaur Way.) There was another picture at the end of the book, of a small, grinning ratlike critter that was about to gnaw on some dinosaur eggs, juxtaposed with some text pondering the possibility that dinosaurs' extinction was hastened by hungry mammals. I wanted to yell at that little beast and tell it, "Stop! You have no idea what you're doing! You're going to make the dinosaurs extinct! Don't eat that!!"

2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss was chock-full of images designed to turn a child prone to anxiety into a cyclone of worry. The Cat was messing up the house! Anarchy ruled! Everything was out of control! And look--here comes Mom!!

Her foot got closer and closer on each of the last few pages...there would never be enough time to put things back in order before she burst through the door, and then there'd be heck to pay. Tick, tock, tick, tock. 

The anxiety was fanned to fever pitch by the rattled, panicky fish who chastised the cat and urged the children to hurry and clean up before their misdeeds were discouraged. Nowadays I realize that I have always had a lot in common with that fish, who would have nibbled his fingernails to the quick if he'd had fingers or nails.

3. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, published by Caxton House, Inc., in 1939. This edition was owned by my mother and my uncle as children growing up in Queens, New York, and passed along to us when we were little. It's cram-packed with illustrations to give a kid the heebie-jeebies. 

They're starkly black and white, with a spidery, spindly, stiff quality to the lines that gave me the same uneasy feeling that was spiked by the jagged theme music of "The Twilight Zone." Most of the characters Pinocchio meets are also rogues and ruffians, so most of the figures in the scenes are likewise indifferent to his plight, adding the chill of emotional coldness to the pictures.

The fact that the text attending the illustration was alarming no doubt added to my morbid fascination with it: "The Serpent...laughed, and laughed, and laughed, until from the violence of his laughter he broke a blood-vessel in this chest and died."

4. This picture of a spoiled picnic is from Summer by Alice Low, illustrated by the wonderful Roy McKie. I loved this book as a kid and still love it, as it captures the essence of the timeless, hot, humid days of a Long Island summer back in a time when you were told to go play outside, unfettered by small hand-held electronic devices. 

The ants on this spread, however, made me squirm, probably because in proportion to the kids, they're really quite alarmingly large. Whenever I got to this page, I was always exceedingly careful not to touch any part of the paper other than the large white space on the lower right, where the "47" is. I see that nowadays this book is still published, though it's been cut to bits to shorten it and to take out anything that could possibly make even a child with the most delicate of nerves feel the slightest twinge of discomfort. 

5. Two carriages hurtle toward each other and an inevitable collision on a narrow road in the Whitman edition of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, published in 1965. Black Beauty survives unharmed, but Rory, the horse he's teamed up with, suffers a ghastly chest wound. 

The imminent-catastrophe aspect of the picture combined with the gaping mouths and the lack of eyes on the horses, due to the blinkers, made this image a veritable Guernica to me as a kid. This impression was surely enhanced because the text notes that poor Rory, once healed, was sent off to a miserable life as a coal-carter's horse afterward. Everything about this scene from the story injected a little bit of dread about the random unfairness of life, something that I'd had the good fortune not to experience in my secure, predictable 1960s suburban childhood.

6. Struwwelpeter ("Shock-headed Peter") by Heinrich Hoffman! The epitome of freak-you-out pictures!! The Scissor-man cutting off a thumbsucker's thumb! Girl Who Plays With Matches going up in flames! They were all scary, but the boy Kaspar who refuses to eat his dinner and wastes away into this stringy thing before finally starving to death scared the bejesus out of me. I've read that Hoffman wrote this book as a spoof of the moralistic, lecturing fare that was published for kids in his time (the mid-1800s), though many sources state he wrote it because he couldn't find any decent children's books for his kids. The stories are so over the top I tend to think the first reason is the real one.

7. Walter Crane's illustrations for Household Stories by the Brothers Grimm (Macmillan, 1927) are lavish, detailed, and often beautiful. Many of them also capture the cruelty inherent in the stories. This particular bit of spot art embellished the final page of the story "Prudent Hans," illustrating a section in which Hans is said to respond to his mother's instruction to "cast sheep's eyes" at the lovely Grethel by taking the eyes out of the sheep and throwing them in Grethel's face. Ugh! 

I vividly remember asking my mom why his mom would tell him to do something like that, and my mom informing me that to cast sheep's eyes meant to make flirtatious faces at someone--what you'd call "batting the eyes" or "making cow's eyes" at someone.

Not surprisingly, the text reports that Grethel "ran away and became the bride of another."

8. Anyone who accuses Beatrix Potter of being sentimental and twee has never really read Potter's stories.

Her animals, despite wearing frock coats and pantaloons, are animals through and through. Dim-witted geese have their eggs devoured by dogs; rabbits get put into pies; a bully bunny is shot by a hunter; and squirrels happily pay protection money to owls in the form of dead mice. 

This illustration from The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was a real cliffhanger...Nutkin is absolutely powerless in the clenches of the owl, who bides his time deciding what do to with the impertinent squirrel who's been taunting him for pages (much to the growing alarm of the reader).



9. Another Potter illustration, this time from The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Peter has disobeyed his mother by larking about in the garden where his father was caught and later baked into a pie, stuffing himself with food and losing all his clothes and narrowly escaping capture himself. 

Now he's too plump to get out of the garden by slipping under the gate, and the mouse with the pea in her mouth is mute and unable to give him advice. 

This picture of Peter, totally lost, totally full of regret and fear, and surrounded by uncaring strangers is the essence of being a very young child who's lost Mom in a big department store.

Peter Rabbit, the Existentialist Lagomorph!




10. Hmm, I'm sensing a running theme of alienation and panic in my childhood fears here; perhaps the idea of anything happening to disrupt the loving security of my home and family was far more frightening to me than any monster, bogeyman, or zombie could ever be. Because if I ever wanted to feel desolate, all I had to do was turn to this page in Rich Cat, Poor Cat by Bernard Waber. 

This lovely book, which contrasts the life of poor, feral Scat with that of rich, pampered city kitties and winds up with the happiest of endings, has long been out of print and isn't easy to find in libraries--I have no idea why, as it's a wonderful story, simply told, with beautiful, vivid illustrations. Scat's lonely days, summed up in this image of her as an unwanted, sick kitty with nobody to say bless you when she sneezes in the midst of a crowded, noisy, unfeeling city, give the reader just enough of a shiver and feeling of desolation while knowing that soon Scat will find a loving home. The child's anxiety about nobody being in control and being unloved is nicely rounded by this touchdown in a comfortable, safe place. It's much like Max's safe-harbor experience in Where the Wild Things Are, when he wakes up to find a hot meal waiting for him.

11. I always loved the illustrations done by Louis Darling for Beverly Cleary's books, especially Ribsy. Darling's illustrations were anything but darling--Ribsy was a bony, ugly mutt, and Cleary's wonderful girl-terror Ramona was a skinny, scraped-knees, messy child. In Ribsy, the dog gets lost and there are multiple near-misses in which he's almost reunited with his owner, Henry Huggins. The suspense is unbearable for a kid and maintained right up to the last chapter. 

This little spot art of Ribsy is nothing more than an adornment for the end of a chapter, but it captures how forlorn Ribsy is. I guess I found it particularly evocative when I was a kid because of the text it related to: Ribsy, after behaving badly in an elementary school classroom, is evicted from his position as school mascot and told to "go home" by the principal.

"After one more sad backward glance Ribsy started walking. He wanted to obey the man. He wanted to go home, but he did not know where home was, and there was no way he could make the man understand."

12. The scary picture I just couldn't get enough of, however, was tucked away in a little paperback storybook purchased through one of those classroom book-ordering schemes. It was called Rabbit and Skunk and the Scary Rock by Carla Stevens, illustrated by Robert Kraus. Throughout the book, the animals shudder in fear because of horrible noises, such as "Gruummch!", coming from behind the big scary rock. 

I liked this illustration a lot even though Rabbit is clearly so very frightened partly because he was safe (I knew the thing behind the rock wasn't that scary, plus he was being tightly held by his protective friend Skunk, who wouldn't let anything bad happen), but mostly because whenever we got to this part of the story, my grandma would always pause at my request to give me a big, squashy hug just like the one Rabbit was getting, before we turned the page to confront what lurked behind the rock. And that, to me, is the whole point of scary images and scenes in picture books.

Monday, October 14, 2013

How to Roll Over and Get Good and Dirty

1. Wait until you have been bathed and groomed and are all nice and clean and shiny.


2. While walking around the arena, sniff and search and scratch for exactly the right spot in which to roll. Do this again and again and again. Keep threatening to roll in a corner of the arena, where you can possibly end up getting stuck, or "cast," and unable to rise again because your legs are jammed up against the arena wall, causing all sorts of difficulties for your owner. Don't actually do it; just play with those human minds for a bit.


3. When you have found exactly the right latitude and longitude and particulate size for a good, back-scratching roll, sink to the ground with loud groaning noises that make everybody around you think that you are quite possibly dying.


4. Prepare to roll.


5. Writhe furiously. Make sure you get that really annoying itchy spot way back on your spine. Flail wildly with all four legs.


6. Repeat.


7. Arise with a leap and a start. Buck and kick a few times and dash forward. Then stop and shake like a big dog.

8. Wear your dust with pride.

"Sorry about the grooming job, Mom (not!)."


Friday, October 4, 2013

"Swallows Circling with Their Shimmering Sound"

Look up on a summer evening near any body of water in the Seattle area, and you're bound to see the silhouettes of swallows, swooping and swirling as they pursue insects.

Several species of swallows (as well as the even more aerial swifts) grace our area; the ones we saw in early summer this year at Marymoor Park were the iridescent slivers of sky called Tree Swallows.

Tree swallows are common across much of North America. They're named for their habit of nesting in tree cavities near water sources (including holes in stumps, causing them to be called Stump Sparrows in the past), though they'll avail themselves of birdhouses and similar sites. They've been known to nest in mailboxes and under eaves (the species was once known as the Eave Sparrow in some regions). Thomas Brewer, nineteenth-century doctor and ornithologist (of Brewer's Blackbird and Brewer's Sparrow fame) noted that he'd observed tree swallows nesting even in a "rude candle-box."

(Which apparently is just what it sounds like: a box for holding candles. It was made of wood with a sliding lid and was designed to keep mice from eating the candles. I guess some nineteenth-century farm child filched the box from the kitchen, carried it off to collect treasures, and then forgot all about it and left it outside, at the mercy of swallows in the real-estate market.)

Marymoor Park was apparently fresh out of rude candle-boxes, but they had plenty of plastic gourds and wooden pole-mounted boxes for swallows as well as purple martins to nest in.

The birds were in the thick of breeding season when we strolled through the park. That evening, every nest site seemed to have a vigilant bird, presumably the male, perched atop it.

They weren't the least bit disturbed by humans walking by; they knew people were unlikely to raid their homes. The animals preying on their eggs and young are far more likely to be raccoons, opossums, and snakes (and cats, which take adults as well as young).

Tree swallows have actually enjoyed a pretty good relationship with humans, despite such sorrows as human-caused habitat fragmentation, pollution, and knocking-down of nests with a broom when said nests are in inconvenient (to humans) locations.

Native Americans put up gourds for the insect-eating purple martin to nest in, which tree swallows eagerly claimed, too. European settlers followed suit and even built massive purple-martin houses with multiple entrances; when martins declined in numbers, tree swallows were quick to move in.

And according to Birds of America, published in 1936, the tree swallows certainly knew which side their bread was buttered on: "In some localities swallow boxes have been erected and are readily occupied. English Sparrows are very apt to try to drive the swallows out of the boxes.

"Sometimes they do, but the human proprietor can easily discourage the English sparrows. The swallows very readily learn that man is fighting the sparrows and have been known to call persistently when annoyed by English sparrows so that the man may hear them and come to the rescue."

Tree swallows are migratory birds. They're one of the earliest swallow species to arrive in the north in spring and one of the last to leave in the fall. Though they dine mainly on insects caught in flight, they also eat seeds and berries in a pinch, unlike other swallows.

The flickering, darting flight of tree swallows is beautiful to see, and if you pause and listen, you can hear their calls, a rain shower of liquid notes.

Ornithologist William Leon Dawson, writing in the 1920s, transcribed the refrain as "Sweetie kickup, sweetie kickup, sweetie sweetie kickup" (with a helpful "etc." added at the end). An Audubon guide of the 1940s depicts the bird's voice as "twitterings of a sweet, liquid quality, often run together into a rippling chatter."

This post's title comes from the poem "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Sara Teasdale, who writes of "swallows circling with their shimmering sound" in a post-apocalyptic world in which "Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,/If mankind perished utterly."

Mankind, however, would certainly regret the loss of swallows. A diligent researcher once figured out that the tree swallow's cousin, the barn swallow, can eat 60 insects per hour, making for about 850 in one day or 25,000 in a month.

Certainly tree swallows must be swallowing similar numbers of insects, providing pest removal free of charge while asking for nothing more than the shelter of a rude candle-box.