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ARE SPIDERS MORE ABUNDANT AROUND HALLOWEEN?

       There are many superstitions surrounding Halloween.  Quite a few of these folktales deal with the mistaken belief that spiders consort with witches, ghosts, and goblins.  Let’s look at one of these tall tales.

       One of the stories I have heard is that spiders are more abundant around Halloween because they gather with witches and unsavory characters this bizarre holiday.  The truth of the matter is that chances are people are more likely to see more spiders around Halloween than they might during the spring, summer, and winter.  However, this has nothing to do with Halloween.  Instead, there is a scientific basis for spiders being more abundant in the fall of the year.  Halloween just happens to celebrated during this season.

       There are two reasons why we are more apt to see spiders in the fall.  First, this is the mating season for a vast number of spiders.  Consequently, spiders are more prone to be out and about then looking for mates.  This increases the likelihood we will encounter them.

      Another reason is when spiders emerge from eggs in spring they are extremely small; this makes them difficult to find.  Throughout the spring and summer, they continue to increase in size.  Once they reach maturity by fall, it is much easier for us to spot them.  This gives us the false impression that they are actually more abundant.

       I lament the fact that so many people cringe whenever they see a spider.  As a result, untold numbers of spiders are killed because we fear them.  Their perceived association with Halloween helps perpetuate our animosity toward these beneficial invertebrates.  In truth, the vast majority of the 35,000 species of spiders found around the world pose no threat to humans.  In contrast, they are important predators that help control insects and other invertebrates that humankind considers detrimental.

HALLOWEEN AND WILDLIFE FOLKLORE

        Unfortunately, folktales link many of our backyard wildlife neighbors such as owls, toads, snakes, and bats to Halloween.  That being the case, with Halloween only a few weeks away, there is no better time to dispel one of the tall tales regarding one of these unfortunate animals — the toad.

        The animals associated with Halloween have a number of things in common.  For example, many are creatures of the night.  This is a time when folktales tell us these animals consort with witches and goblins.  Such associations are enough to malign any animal.  As such, it is not surprising that people fear the toad.  Although we are not afraid toads will bite us, many people honestly believe that, if you touch a toad, you will get warts.  Apparently, toads also infect witches with warts as they are often depicted with warts on their noses.  Let’s do a fact check and see if this bit of folklore is actually true.

        The origin of this belief was long ago lost in the mists of history.  However, it is widely believed this notion originated from the fact that the skins of toads are covered with lots of oddly shaped warts.  Since medical knowledge was rudimentary at that time in history, this conclusion was not disputed and took on a life of its own.  Who among us has not heard our father or mother tell us not to pick up that toad, because will give your warts?  

        The truth of the matter is warts are caused by something called a human papillion virus.  There are 150 or so viruses of this type.  They most often infect humans through a cut or scratch.  It has been suggested that one of the reasons children seem to develop warts more than adults is their roughhousing make them more prone to get scratches and cuts.  In addition, the fact that their immune systems have not yet fully developed makes them more susceptible to many infections like warts.

        I can personally attest to the fact that toads do not cause warts.  When my granddaughter was a youngster, I often accompanied her on forays into the dark to see how many toads she could capture in a single night.  On a good night, she might catch a dozen or more of the “warty” critters.  After examining and photographing them, she released them where they were captured.  During these unforgettable adventures, she never developed any warts.  However, I was left with a wealth of priceless memories.

        I hope that I have dispelled this folktale.  Unfortunately, I suspect that the belief that toads can infect us with warts will be around for many Halloweens to come.

STRAWBERRY BUSH USHERS IN THE FALL

      Currently throughout much of the state, there are few, if any, signs that fall is ready to blanket Georgia with a quilt of reds, oranges, and yellows.  However, those of us that have strawberry bush (Euonymus americana) growing in their backyards have been granted a preview of the colorful show yet to come.

       The strawberry bush is not a plant you would ever suspect as standing out among scores of other native shrubs that grow across the state.  It is small (4-8 feet tall), often grows under the canopy of larger hardwood trees, or among a myriad of brushy plants along forest edges or in recently harvested timber tracts.  However, from late summer into fall it is transformed into a shrub of unparalleled beauty.  

       At that of the year the plant’s seed capsules (arils), which are covered with conical warts, resemble green strawberries, turn pink and then bright red.  Thereafter the leathery capsules magically open and display shiny red berries that appear suspended on thin threads.  Once you cast your eyes on them for the first time, I am sure you will agree they possess unrivaled beauty.

       The opened pods and dangling berries, reveals where the plant got some of its nicknames such as hearts-a-bustin, bursting hearts or hearts-bursting-open-with-love.

       Strawberry bush is also referred to as spindletree.  It seems that the plant’s hard wood was once used to make spindles for spinning wheels.  If you will recall, in the popular children’s story of Sleeping beauty, the fair maiden fell asleep when she pricked her finger on a sharp spindle.  It is believed this relates to the folktale that claims that the wood of the strawberry bush is poisonous and, if a person ingests the wood; he or she will fall into a coma.  While I cannot attest that eating the wood would cause a person to end up in a coma, I do know that the plant is considered poisonous to humans.

       Such is not the case with birds and mammals.  In fact, it is an ice cream-food for white-tailed deer.  Whitetails simply cannot get enough of it.  In fact, one reason strawberry bush is not found in many woodlands is it has been heavily browsed by deer.  It is interesting to note wildlife biologists often use the prevalence of strawberry bush as an indicator of the size of a deer herd.

       Although, the berries are eaten by songbirds quail and even wild turkeys, strawberry bush rarely shows up in food habit studies.  I believe this is because, in most places, very few berries are produced compared to other plants such as pokeberries, and American beautyberries.

       Two things I also like about strawberry bush are that its leaves are aromatic and turn orange in the fall.

       If your garden is not plagued by white-tailed deer, strawberry bush would be a great addition on your landscape.  It is a Georgia native that is attractive and provides food for wildlife too.

       Once you establish it, you will become one of the few people that can enjoy this harbinger of autumn long before the main show begins.

HELPING BOX TURTLES CROSS THE ROAD

     Whenever you see a box turtle attempting to cross a busy highway, I am sure you cannot help but be concerned the reptile can safely complete its perilous journey.  Indeed, with traffic volume increasing every year, box turtle treks across the black asphalt ribbons that crisscross the state are becoming ever more dangerous.  Not wanting to see a box turtle struck by a vehicle, whenever possible, drivers often stop and try to help turtle avoid being crushed by a car or truck.  Once a turtle is retrieved, a driver must decide where to place it in order to keep it out of harm’s way.

       I have asked two herpetologists what they would recommend in this situation.  Both agreed it is best to place the turtle on the side of the road it was headed.  While there is always a chance the turtle will turn around and walk back onto the highway, in most instances, this is not the case.

       The experts also stressed it is not a good idea to move a turtle  a mile or two down the road to a place that appears to be safer.  When released some distance from its home range, box turtles often find it difficult to find enough food to survive.  This can result in the turtles wandering about.

       If you decide to come to the aid of a box turtle trying to plod across a busy highway, please make sure you have a safe place to pull off the road.  In addition, do not walk out into the highway to retrieve a box turtle until you are absolutely certain you can do so well before a oncoming vehicle reaches you.

HOW MUCH WATER DOES A GRAY SQUIRRELS DRINK PER DAY?

       The majority of the birdbaths placed in Georgia backyards are intended to be used by birds. However, the truth of the matter is many other animals visit them. I think it would be safe to say the “other” animal most often seen at our feeders is the gray squirrel. With that in mind, have you ever wondered how much water a gray squirrel consumes in a day?

       It seems that, a gray squirrel needs two to three tablespoons of water per day, however, a number of factors affect the amount of water a squirrel drinks. For example, female gray squirrels nursing young require more water than squirrels not producing milk for their young.

       It is interesting to note that, on the average, a gray squirrel drinks twice per day.

HOVER FLIES–OFTEN MISTAKEN FOR STINGING INSECTS

      The hover fly (also commonly called the flower fly) is one of our most often misidentified backyard residents. When one suddenly appears out of nowhere and hovers close to our face while making a buzzing sound, many panic and begin swatting at it fearing it is a bee or yellowjacket. Actually, the hover fly is not a bee, not a yellowjacket, nor hornet or wasp. Instead, it is a fly and is harmless to humans.

       Here is how you can tell if you have encountered a stinging insect or a hover fly. All you have to do is remember this brief saying, “Two wings fun, four wings run.” In other words, flower flies possess only one pair of wings, whereas yellowjackets and their relatives have two sets of wings. In addition, while the flower fly will not sting or bite, as we all know, bees, yellowjackets, wasps, and their kin are armed with a stinger that they will use to inflict a painful sting.

       In addition, most of the flower flies we encounter in our backyards look much like yellowjackets. However, if you will look closely, you will notice the hover abdomens of flower flies look deflated and flat. The abdomens of yellowjackets, on the other hand, appear inflated.

       Also, hover flies can both hover and fly backwards, whereas, yellowjackets do not possess this mastery of the air.

FROGS AND FISH DON’T MIX IN SMALL BACKYARD PONDS

       If you are trying to encourage frogs to breed in your small backyard pond, it is best not to stock your pond with fish, with the exception of the perhaps a small number of mosquito fish.

       It seems many species of fish will eat tadpoles. In addition, young fish will often compete with tadpoles for food.

 

OAKS ARE IMPORTANT BUTTERFLY AND MOTH HOST PLANTS

              Our backyards are home to an amazing variety of butterflies and moths.  In recent years, homeowners have been trying to provide these fascinating insects with a variety of plants that serve as host plants.  Most of these efforts have focused on establishing herbaceous host plants.  Ironically woody plants such and shrubs are trees are rarely recognized for their value as host plants even though, they often host more butterflies and moths than any other plants found in an average yard.  Leading the list of trees that serve as host plants for moths and butterflies in Georgia are native oaks.

 

       Throughout the country, native oaks host at least 557 species of moths and butterflies.  More than 20 species of oaks are native to the Peach State.  Many of these oaks commonly grow in our backyards. 

 

       Here is a short list of some of the butterflies and moths that use oaks as host plants:  red-spotted purple, Horace’s and Juvenal’s duskywing, banded hairstreak, white M hairstreak, clymene moth,  imperial moth, cecropia moth, rosy maple moth, and polyphemus moth.

      If you are interested in providing host plants for a wide variety of moths and butterflies make sure, your home landscape includes one or more species of native oaks.  With that in mind, do an inventory of the trees growing in your yard.  If you already have willow, water, white, live, or other species of native oaks in your yard, you already providing a wide variety of butterflies with a place to lay their eggs.  If not, when you are planning additions to your yard add a native oak to the list.  This one investment will yield dividends for years to come.

 

START PLANNING FOR SPRING GARDENS

      With spring just weeks away, there is no better time than now to decide which plants you are going to introduce into your home landscape this growing season. With that in mind, if you are looking for a native plant that is beautiful and is a used by pollinators such as ruby-throated hummingbirds, butterflies and others, consider planting beebalm. Here is some information that you should consider when deciding whether or not you want this native wildflower in your yard.

       Wild Bergamot (Beebalm) – Monarda fistula – Type of Plant – perennial; Height – 1 to 5 feet: Blooms – June to September; Soil – moist to well drained; Light – full sun to partial shade; Wildlife Use – butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds.

UNWANTED NIGHTTIME VISITORS TO BIRD FEEDERS

       My wife and I have noticed the last birds to our seed feeders are typically cardinals.  Long after the chipping sparrows, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and house finches have gone to roost male northern cardinals seem to glow in the fading light of the day.  Once the cardinals finally call it quits for the day, as much as we probably don’t like to think about it, a number of unwanted guests are apt to visit our feeders under the cloak of darkness.

       To some extent, which animals will visit our feeders depends on where you live in the Peach State.  For example, if you reside in North Georgia or a handful of other locations scattered around the rest of the state where black bears make their home, during the warmer months of the year you might have a visit from a black bear.

       For the rest of us, our feeders are more likely to be visited by rodents, raccoons, opossums, and white-tailed deer.  Believe it or not, coyotes and foxes are also known to frequent feeders at night.  In most cases, these animals are attracted to seeds that have been flipped out of feeders or scattered on the ground. That being the case, one of the best ways to discourage nocturnal visits by these furry critters is to clean up any seed left on the ground.  This task can be made less daunting by putting out only as much seed as your think the birds will eat during the day.

       Deer can often be thwarted by not feeding inexpensive seed mixtures that often contain corn.  Corn is a favorite deer food.

       If marauding bears are a problem, you will have to take your feeders down before sunset.  If you don’t, you stand the very real chance of having feeders destroyed our hauled off into the woods.

      Should you want to get some idea what is actually visiting your bird feeding area at night, install a motion-activated trail camera aimed at your feeders.  If you do, you may be amazed at what is going bump in the night just outside your backdoor.