Our cottontail; ode to a devil's urn; more.
1 | Our Cottontail
Throughout southwestern North America, from northern Montana to central Mexico and west to the Pacific, Audubon’s cottontails (named in honor of John James Audubon) are multiplying like, well, rabbits. These long-eared, medium-sized lagomorphs breed in every month, sometimes producing five litters a year. The gestation period is about a month, and there can be as many as five young per litter. Like most species that compensate for heavy predation by pumping out lots of offspring, the Audubon’s cottontail is short-lived, seldom surviving more than two years. However, its fecundity together with an ability to adapt to radically diverse habitats—from high-country grasslands to low, sun-blasted badlands, even to the lawn under your bird feeder—has enabled the species to achieve great success. Audubon’s cottontails are especially fond of prairie dog towns, where they appropriate the burrows and take advantage of the forbs and grasses that thrive in the excavated earth. Unlike other rabbits, they’re proficient climbers, sometimes scaling leaning trees. Midday heat usually drives them to their burrows, so look for them at dawn and dusk.
2|Ode to a Devil’s Urn
Most winged and flowering harbingers of spring are weeks away. But now, east of the Rockies, nothing speaks of coming beauty quite like the devil’s urn—that black, leathery fungi fruiting on dead hardwoods and on cankering living ones. Its apt Latin name, Urnula craterium, translates to “burned crater.” If you look past the physical appearance of this agent of decay and rebirth, you may perceive in its function something more beautiful than any Grecian urn. What’s more, you have reason to rejoice if you discover devil’s urns on your property, because their presence proves your soil is fertile. Not only do these fungi herald spring, they symbolize it as well, for few forest denizens are so prolific. Spores require only about an hour and a half to germinate, and the success rate is extremely high. If the sight of a March devil’s urn buoys your spirits as much as, say, the first flash of a May tanager, then you have arrived as a naturalist.
Snow lingers in their breeding range when indigo buntings waft north on night winds from Central America, Mexico, and our nation’s extreme south. The diffraction of light from the males’ black feathers makes them appear iridescent blue and sometimes varying shades of turquoise. Females are dull brown, with faint, buff wing bars, whitish throats, and often finely streaked breasts. Few insects and spiders are active now, so for the next few days don’t be surprised to see them at your bird feeder. Unlike most songbirds, the male indigo bunting often carols at midday. In the words of early 20th-century ornithologist Edward Forbush, “He will sing his way from the bottom of a tree to the top, going up branch by branch until he has reached the topmost spire, and there, fully exposed to the blazing sun, he will sing and sing and sing.” (To hear the vocalization, Google “indigo bunting song.”) Because these birds avoid unbroken forests, preferring instead second growth, edges, and brushy fields, there are doubtless more now than in pre-Columbian days.
Even before some of the hibernating butterflies have hauled their tattered wings from leaf piles and wood crevices, Pacific orangetips are struggling from overwintering pupae (which may have been in diapause for two or more years). As spring races north from Baja California to Alaska, watch for these members of the white and sulphur family west of the Pacific divide. They resemble their cousins in basic coloring, save for the rich orange tips of their forewings. Dorsal wing surfaces of both sexes are mostly white (sometimes yellow, especially in females). But their undersides are marbled, camouflaging the insects when they perch on bark with their wings folded shut. Now males search for mates in wooded, grassy, or brushy meadows, canyons, stream banks, and hillsides. As the season progresses, females will deposit green eggs on rock cresses and other wild mustards. Within about 24 hours the eggs turn bright orange.
5| Dance Class