Bluebirds and the wonder in a boy's heart

THIS JUST IN ...

November 22, 1995|By DAN RODRICKS

Tomorrow being Thanksgiving, I'd like to take a moment to express gratitude for ladybugs. They're aphid-eaters, after all. Organic gardeners love them. Ladybugs make chemical-free vegetables possible. They're also defenders of trees, shrubs and rose bushes. But that's not really why I'm grateful for them.

(Note to the reader: Dan has not been sipping the Thanksgiving cabernet a little early; he's serious about this ladybug stuff. Please, read on.)

Big numbers of ladybugs visited an old farmhouse in northern Baltimore County this fall, crawling under the windows, up the walls and decorating the kitchen ceiling in speckled beads. We were visiting the farm when Nicholas, the little boy in my life, excitedly pointed them out to adults engaged in grown-up talk at the kitchen table.

We looked up. Nicholas had not exaggerated. There must have been three dozen ladybugs. I would call it a swarm, but that word is too harsh. These were ladybugs, after all, not killer bees.

Actually, they were Halloween Lady Bird Beetles, also known as Multi-Colored Asian Lady Beetles. This type, imported from Japan in the late 1970s by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has a proclivity for wintering en masse inside houses and barns.

I got all this a few weeks later from Mike Raupp, chairman of the University of Maryland's department of entomology. He says we should be glad to see this type of beetle, grateful for their abundance. And yet he knows that some homeowners were distressed this fall to see them crawling up their walls and along kitchen counters.

"They were introduced in the South, primarily to control aphids that feed in trees, pecan trees in particular," says Raupp. "But we're seeing them throughout the East now. They're very beneficial. They do a lot of good."

They are voracious aphid-eaters, capable of dispatching 40 of them in an hour. They also like whiteflies, scale insects and mealybugs. Ladybugs are considered the best pesticide on legs.

In the fall, most of them find a place to winter outdoors, under leaves and bark.

Halloween Lady Bird Beetles are different; they like houses.

While they won't harm furniture or clothes, they will leave an orange stain on your hands if you touch them or squash them. Raupp suggests we round them up, with either a small vacuum cleaner or soft broom, and move them to another space, such as a tool shed or garage, for the winter.

Confession: I was relieved after talking with Mike Raupp and learning more about ladybugs.

Having been profoundly influenced 25 years ago by Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," and having come of age with the Earth Day generation, I tend to suspect permanent environmental damage when I see something as bizarre as 36 ladybugs on a kitchen ceiling.

So, where their presence aroused wonder in Nicholas, who is just 5, it aroused mild concern in me. My theories about odd bTC phenomena in nature tend to be negative. For example, maybe an increase in the ladybug population means a decline in the bird population.

That thought occurred to me this past week when Nicholas and I visited the old farm again and set out for a hike in nearby woods.

We saw all kinds of birds -- six blue jays squawking in a row of birches, nuthatches scampering down tree trunks, woodpeckers, titmice, juncos, chickadees, sparrows, finches, starlings and grackles.

And three bluebirds.

The bluebirds were actually startling -- like the king's coachmen hustling through a feudal forest. That color, that royal blue, on the male's back can take your breath away, especially when it appears suddenly among the bare bones of trees or against a slope of fallen leaves.

I told Nicholas that, when I was his age, I never saw bluebirds. They have made a comeback in the East over the past three decades. When I see one now, it makes me happy, even hopeful.

"When I see a bluebird," Nicholas said, "it makes me want to eat a blueberry muffin."

Great. A flash of summer and childish wonder on a gray day in the autumn woods.

We saw a chipmunk scamper along a little brook.

We saw turkey vultures picking at the carcass of a deer. The birds were large and comical, hopping about, stretching their naked necks, picking at the dried meat on the rib cage.

We saw a great blue heron descend through an opening in the trees, land along a creek and start his vigil for food that swims.

We saw a trout rise to feed on a tiny black fly known as a midge.

We heard the crash of a startled deer in the woods, its hoofs cracking small branches and rustling leaves. We never saw the deer. Nicholas squeezed my hand.

We heard the honking of Canada geese and looked up at the pink sky and saw two chevrons arching to the west.

We heard, but never found, a woodpecker at work on some high mast in the woods.

After we had returned to the old farmhouse, I sat in the kitchen and drank coffee, grateful for the day, the signs of hope, the ladybugs on the ceiling and the wonder in the heart of a little boy.

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