Friday, July 31, 2015

Going, Going, Gone

The murder of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe by a Minneapolis dentist brought to mind the disappearance of seemingly lesser beings. I am assuming no dentist from the Midwest or elsewhere is responsible, but I remain concerned by the vanishings.

This summer, for example, I have seen a grand total of one firefly. It was hovering in my front yard last evening blinking frantically at first, then with less and less ardor. It finally drifted away as fireflies do, and yes, I’ll admit it, this very small event saddened me.

Why are fireflies disappearing? According to, “Most researchers blame three main factors: Increased chemical use, development and light pollution… Signs indicate that light pollution as a major factor in the disappearance of fireflies all over the world. Human light pollution is believed to interrupt firefly flash patterns. Scientists have observed that fireflies get out of synch for a few minutes after a car’s headlights pass. Light from homes, cars, stores, and street lights may all make it difficult for fireflies to signal each other during mating—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born next season.”

The bees are going, as we all know, but no one had reported on the dearth of praying mantis. I haven’t seen a single one of the big insects this summer. Two years ago I found an injured mantis in my driveway and kept it alive in a terrarium through the winter and early spring. I released it after making sure the last frost had passed, and I assume it got somewhere safely. By the way, female mantis do not eat their husband’s head after mating, so it’s safe to come back in the next life as a male mantis without fear of decapitation. You might want to fear the pesticides, though. Chemicals used in ornamental gardens are fatal to both good and bad insects. Mantis are among the victims. And so, incidentally, are ladybugs, one of the more beneficial insects any yard can have, and monarch butterflies, which went from thousands to none in the space of two years.

Turtles and snakes? Not a one in my yard. Box turtles and black snakes were once common in my part of the country; a healthy rain brought out a number of the yellow-and-black-shelled reptiles that can live forty or more years. No more. Vanishing lands and water sources, cars and lawnmowers, have spelled death for this gentle species.

A couple of years ago, two small garden snakes got into my house. They were no longer than a foot and I deposited them back outdoors. The big snakes—rat snakes and black runners—have vanished. As developers take down trees and wild shrubs, the snakes lose their home environment as well as their sources of food. Once commonly seen sunning themselves on the old stone walls that border farmers’ fields, the snakes appear to have gone the way of the turtles.

And then there are the bats. I have a bat box behind my garage that used to house a small collection of these mammals. There are sixteen different bat species in Virginia, and I never could tell what kind was flitting around my yard, but I do know they are not there anymore. A fungus that has killed millions of bats in the past few years shows no signs of abating.  

What we do have, in droves, are rabbits.  I see one or two every day, and with the hare proliferation has come an increase in foxes. There are at least two red ones with burrows within a hundred yards of my house.  They’re curious and fearless and one, in particular, has several times challenged my cat. A mistake, that. I have a long-haired Burmese of advancing age who no longer knows what fear is. The fox yips, barks, makes strange coughing sounds and capers around my front lawn. The cat stares at it without much interest. Once there was an argument over the corpse of a small rabbit one or the other had slain. The car had it, the fox wanted it. The fox did not get it and the small corpse was deposited on the deck of my neighbors.  A gift, no doubt, since my neighbors are honorary cat parents and their yard is part of the cat’s territory. Tennyson was right—nature is red of tooth and claw.  

Oh, and we now have coyotes. I was surprised to see one near my Metro station. And bear. A black bear was spotted not three miles from my house. And there are reports that bobcats are making a return. So maybe all is not lost, but I do miss the turtles and snakes.


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