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Chapter 5

The Lady Bird: Deilephila Lineata


In that same country garden where my first Cecropia was found, Deilephila Lineata was one of my earliest recollections. This moth flew among the flowers of especial sweetness all day long, just as did the hummingbirds; and I was taught that it was a bird also--the Lady Bird. The little tan and grey thing hovering in air before the flowers was almost as large as the humming-birds, sipping honey as they did, swift in flight as they; and both my parents thought it a bird.

They did not know the humming-birds were feasting on small insects attracted by the sweets, quite as often as on honey, for they never had examined closely. They had been taught, as I was, that this other constant visitor to the flowers was a bird. When a child, a humming-bird nested in a honeysuckle climbing over my mother's bedroom window. My father lifted me, with his handkerchief bound across my nose, on the supposition that the bird was so delicate it would desert its nest and eggs if they were breathed upon, to see the tiny cup of lichens, with a brown finish so fine it resembled the lining of a chestnut burr, and two tiny eggs. I well remember he told me that I now had seen the nest and eggs of the smallest feathered creature except the Lady Bird, and he never had found its cradle himself.

Every summer I discovered nests by the dozen, and for several years a systematic search was made for the home of a Lady Bird. One of the unfailing methods of finding locations was to climb a large Bartlett pear tree that stood beside the garden fence, and from an overhanging bough watch where birds flew with bugs and worms they collected. Lady Birds were spied upon, but when they left our garden they arose high in air, and went straight from sight toward every direction. So locating their nests as those of other birds were found, seemed impossible.

Then I tried going close the sweetest flowers, those oftenest visited, the petunias, yellow day lilies, and trumpet creepers, and sitting so immovably I was not noticeable while I made a study of the Lady Birds. My first discovery was that they had no tail. One poised near enough to make sure of that, and I hurried to my father with the startling news. He said it was nothing remarkable; birds frequently lost their tails. He explained how a bird in close quarters has power to relax its muscles, and let its tail go in order to save its body, when under the paw of a cat, or caught in a trap.

That was satisfactory, but I thought it must have been a spry cat to get even a paw on the Lady Bird, for frequently humming-birds could be seen perching, but never one of these. I watched the tail question sharply, and soon learned the cats had been after every Lady Bird that visited our garden, or any of our neighbours, for not one of them had a tail. When this information was carried my father, he became serious, but finally he said perhaps the tail was very short; those of humming-birds or wrens were, and apparently some water birds had no tail, or at least a very short one.

That seemed plausible, but still I watched this small and most interesting bird of all; this bird that no one ever had seen taking a bath, or perching, and whose nest never had been found by a person so familiar with all outdoors as my father. Then came a second discovery: it could curl its beak in a little coil when leaving a flower. A few days later I saw distinctly that it had four wings but I could discover no feet. I became a rank doubter, and when these convincing proofs were carried to my father, he also grew dubious.

"I always have thought and been taught that it was a bird," he said, "but you see so clearly and report so accurately, you almost convince me it is some large insect possibly of the moth family."

When I carried this opinion to my mother and told her, no doubt pompously, that `very possibly' I had discovered that the Lady Bird was not a bird at all, she hailed it as high treason, and said, "Of course it is a bird!" That forced me to action. The desperate course of capturing one was resolved upon. If only I could, surely its feet, legs, and wings would tell if it were a bird. By the hour I slipped among those bloom-bordered walks between the beds of flaming sweet-williams, buttercups, phlox, tiger and day lilies, Job's tears, hollyhocks, petunias, poppies, mignonette, and every dear old-fashioned flower that grows, and followed around the flower-edged beds of lettuce, radishes, and small vegetables, relentlessly trailing Lady Birds.

Pass after pass I made at them, but they always dived and escaped me. At last, when I almost had given up the chase, one went nearly from sight in a trumpet creeper. With a sweep the flower was closed behind it, and I ran into the house crying that at last I had caught a Lady Bird. Holding carefully, the trumpet was cut open with a pin, and although the moth must have been slightly pinched, and lacking in down when released, I clung to it until my mother and every doubting member of my family was convinced that this was no bird at all, for it lacked beak, tail, and feathers, while it had six legs and four wings. Father was delighted that I had learned something new, all by myself; but I really think it slightly provoked my mother when thereafter I always refused to call it a bird. This certainly was reprehensible. She should have known all the time that it was a moth.

The other day a club woman of Chicago who never in her life has considered money, who always has had unlimited opportunities for culture both in America and Europe, who speaks half a dozen languages, and has the care of but one child, came in her auto mobile to investigate the Limberlost. Almost her first demand was to see pictures. One bird study I handed her was of a brooding king rail, over a foot tall, with a three-foot wing sweep, and a long curved bill. She cried, "Oh! see the dear little hummingbird!"

If a woman of unlimited opportunity, in this day of the world, does not know a rail from a humming-bird, what could you expect of my little mother, who spoke only two languages, reared twelve lusty children, and never saw an ocean.

So by degrees the Lady Bird of the garden resolved itself into Deilephila Lineata. Deile--evening; phila--lover; lineata--lined; the Lined Evening Lover. Why 'evening' is difficult to understand, for all my life this moth occurs more frequently with me in the fore and early afternoon than in the evening. So I agree with those entomologists who call it the 'white-lined morning-sphinx.' It is lovely in modest garb, delicately lined, but exceedingly rich in colour. It has the long slender wings of the Sphingid moths, and in grace and tirelessness of flight resembles Celeus, the swallow of the moth family.

Its head is very small, and its thorax large. The eyes are big, and appear bigger because set in so tiny a head. Under its tongue, which is a full inch long, is a small white spot that divides, spreads across each eye, and runs over the back until even with the bases of the front wings. The top of the head and shoulders are olive brown, decorated with one long white line dividing it in the middle, and a shorter on each side. The abdomen is a pale brown, has a straight line running down the middle of the back, made up of small broken squares of very dark brown, touched with a tiny mark of white. Down each side of this small line extends a larger one, wider at the top and tapering, and this is composed of squares of blackish brown alternating with white, the brown being twice the size of the white. The sides of the abdomen are flushed with beautiful rosy pink, and beneath it is tan colour.

The wings are works of art. The front are a rich olive brown, marked the long way in the middle by a wide band of buff, shading to lighter buff at the base. They are edged from the costa to where they meet the back wings, with a line of almost equal width of darker buff, the lower edge touched with white. Beginning at the base, and running an equal distance apart from the costa to this line, are fine markings of white, even and clear as if laid on with a ruler.

The surprise comes in the back wings, that show almost entirely when the moth is poised before a flower. These have a small triangle of the rich dark brown, and a band of the same at the lower edge, with a finish of olive, and a fine line of white as a marginal decoration. Crossing each back wing is a broad band of lovely pink of deeper shade than the colour on the sides. This pink, combined with the olive, dark browns, and white lining, makes the colour scheme of peculiar richness.

Its antennae are long, clubbed, and touched with white at the tips. The legs and body are tan colour. The undersides of the wings are the same as the upper, but the markings of brown and buffish pink show through in lighter colour, while the white lining resembles rows of tan ridges beneath. Its body is covered with silky hairs, longest on the shoulders, and at the base of the wings.

The eggs of the moth are laid on apple, plum, or woodbine leaves, or on grape, currant, gooseberry, chickweed or dock. During May and June around old log cabins in the country, with gardens that contain many of these vines and bushes, and orchards of bloom where the others can be foundthe Lined Evening Lover deposits her eggs.

The caterpillars emerge in about six days. The tiny ovoid eggs are a greenish yellow. The youngsters are pale green, and have small horns. After a month spent in eating, and skin casting, the full-grown caterpillar is over two inches long, and as a rule a light green. There are on each segment black patches, that have a touch of orange, and on that a hint of yellow. The horn increases with the growth of the caterpillar, can be moved at will, and seems as if it were a vicious `stinger.' But there is no sting, or any other method of self-defence, unless the habit of raising the head and throwing it from side to side could be so considered. With many people, this movement, combined with the sharp horn, is enough, but as is true of most caterpillars, they are perfectly harmless. Some moth historians record a mustard yellow caterpillar of this family, and I remember having seen some that answer the description; but all I ever have known to be Lineata were green.

The pupae are nearly two inches long and are tan coloured. They usually are found in the ground in freedom, or deep under old logs among a mass of leaves spun together. In captivity the caterpillars seem to thrive best on a diet of purslane, and they pupate perfectly on dry sand in boxes.

These moths have more complete internal development than those of night, for they feed and live throughout the summer. I photographed a free one feasting on the sweets of petunias in a flower bed at the Cabin, on the seventh of October.


Gene Stratton-Porter

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