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What's in Flight 
Spring, 2023

Luna moth by Jason Dombroskie (below right). 

Polyphemus moth by Jason Dombroskie (above right)
Chickweed Geometer moth by Steve Nanz (above)

2 Polyphemus moth by Jason Dombroskie.JPG
3 Chickweed-Geometer moth by Steve Nanz.JPG
1 Luna moth by Jason Dombroskie.JPG

Moths are the unsung heroes of Carl Schurz Park. A moth rich park is a bird rich park and a park full of healthy plants and trees.  As moths do most of their work in darkness or in disguise, they are rarely observed and largely ignored. In contrast, butterflies, because of their colorful wings and daytime visibility get all the attention. Jason Dombroskie, Manager of the Cornell University Insect Collection, explains that butterflies are just a category of moths and a very small category at that. There are 12,000 species of moths in the US (as compared to 750 species of butterfly).

Girlfriend Underwing (wings open, left) by Jim Vargo
Girlfriend Underwing (wings closed, right) by Greg Lasley

There are probably between 500 to 1,000 different species of moths in our park, estimates Jason. Our moths include beauties such as the Luna Moth, Hummingbird Clearwing Moth and Polyphemus Moth. 

Clymene moth by Steve Nanz (above, left)
Eight-spotted Forester by Steve Nanz (above, right)

Hummingbird Clearwing moth by Charlotte Bill (Below)

Moths, in their larval form as plant-eating caterpillars, are a huge part of the park’s biomass. ‘If you put all the above ground animals into a pile, the caterpillars would amount to 80 percent,’ says Jason Dombroskie.  ‘They are the basis of the park’s foodweb.’

Clymene moth by Steve Nanz (above, left)
Eight-spotted Forester by Steve Nanz (above, right)

Hummingbird Clearwing moth by Charlotte Bill (Below)

‘The bird migration in Spring and Fall is timed to coincide with the availability of insects, and in particular caterpillars, which are little power packets of food for birds full of protein and fat,’ says Desiree Narango, a conservation scientist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

 Forest Tent caterpillars by Jason Dombroskie (above)

Chestnut-sided Warbler with caterpillar by Steve Nanz (above, left)
Scarlet Tanager with caterpillar by Steve Nanz (above, right)

In April and May, the first big hatch-out of caterpillars occurs in our park just as hundreds of migrants such as the Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, and Common Yellow-throated Warblers arrive from their over-wintering grounds in the southern states and Central and Southern America and drop down to feed and rest for a couple of days.

Luna moth caterpillar by Arthemise (above)

Baby caterpillars wake up when the trees are just putting out new leaves because the leaves are the yummiest, the most nutritious and contain the least amount of chemical compounds at this time,’ says Desiree. In a couple of weeks, baby caterpillars can grow ten fold; for example, a Luna Moth’s caterpillar will increase in size from little more than a dot, to larger than a thumb.

Black-capped Chickadee with caterpillar by Smithsonian (above right)
14 Grey Catbird with Caterpillar (above left)

Ninety-six percent of terrestrial birds feed their young on caterpillars. It is an epic endeavor.  For example, Black-capped Chickadees must find between 6,000 and 9,000 caterpillars to feed one brood of chicks.  Similar quantities must be found by the Northern Cardinals, Gray Catbirds and Red-bellied Woodpeckers who nest in our park.

 Larger Boxelder Leafroller caterpillar on a silk thread by Jason Dombroskie (above)

Because caterpillars are such important and tasty morsels for birds, bats, small mammals, wasps and beetles, many caterpillars have evolved extraordinary defense strategies.  They can spin silk out of their mouths to attach themselves to their host plants (many live in native trees such as oak, ash, hickory, maple and birch). When a bird approaches, some caterpillars perform the equivalent of a bungee jump off the branch. They lower themselves sometimes up to two meters down and then crawl back up when it is safe.

Wavy-lined Emerald caterpillar disguising itself with petals by Amber M King (above, left)
One-spotted Variant caterpillar disguised as a twig by Ashley Bosarge (above, right)

Moths are also adept at camouflage.  The caterpillar of the Wavy-lined Emerald Moth will strip petals off a Black-eyed Susan, or whichever flower it is eating, and attach the petals to its back in hopes of passing as the plant. Another master of disguise is the caterpillar of the One-spotted Variant Moth. It pretends to be a twig during the day. ‘It will attach its butt-end to a twig and rest at a 45 degree angle and not move,’ says Jason Dombroskie. It’s only under cover of darkness that it feeds.  Over 200 Inchworm species in New York, camouflage themselves as twigs.

Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar (above, left)
Monarch Butterfly caterpillar (above, right)

Not all caterpillars are equally tasty, says Jason. The hairier caterpillars, like the Woolly Bear Caterpillar (that is often seen ambling along our paths) have barbs on them that can hook into the mouth of a bird. The Monarch butterfly caterpillars, because they feed on milkweed, are poisonous to birds.

Pandorus Sphinx by Edwenna Krause Hosking (above left)
Snowberry Clearwing by Jason Dombroskie (above right)

Another benefit of a moth rich park is that ‘Moths are better pollinators than butterflies. They have furrier bodies, which means they get more pollen on them,’ explains Kevin Burls, an endangered species Conservation Biologist at the Xerces Society.  Eighty percent of moths pollinate at night to avoid daytime predators like spiders, wasps and birds. ‘Moths see in the ultraviolet range, but sight is secondary to their ability to sniff things out. As a result, they particularly like fragrant flowers like lilac and honeysuckle,’ says Jason.

Primrose Cochylid Moth by Stuart Tingley

Another gift the moths give to the park is their abundant poop, which helps to fertilize the plants and trees.  Jason cites a study that shows how trees, which have low levels of herbivory (being eaten by the caterpillars) fare much better than those with no caterpillars at all, because of the caterpillar poop.


Words: Lucie Young

Cornell University Insect Collection:

Words: Lucie Young

Images:   Lucas Urbe, Jay Zemann, Mick Thompson, Deborah Bifulco, Stan Lupo, Dennis Murphy, Lucie Young, Raja Sambasivan, Wayne Hartman via NestWatch, Espie


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