Friday, February 26, 2010

short story "Deciduoso"

Deducioso, the Flying Meat Eater   ~ by J.Ragland

He swoops majestically across the green yard, stopping for only a flicker of time on a wild Black-Eyed Susan.  Same for the White Star Coneflower.  Ditto the beautiful deep purple petunias in the sunny garden, and the deep pink Impatiens in the shady garden.  He ignores the sunflowers and Russian sage.  PFFFTT—ZOOM!! ! The various beautiful flowers are insignificant distractions, best left to hummingbirds and bees.  He has something much meatier for his destination so only pauses for a quick sip of sweet flower nectar here and there, flexing his muscular wings as he feeds.  Sip.  Sip.  Flex.  Flex.  He is blue-black all over except for circular tattoos of blue-purple and yellow-beige high on his arm-wings. 
Swoop!   He is up and away again like Batman on a mission.  He is on a mission.  His mission is to seek out his life-sustaining source.  Where is it? Where?  Where?  He swoops and zooms around the oak tree, around the dogwood clump, over the vegetable garden and past the hickory grove out to the rocky hillside where the grass is sparse and finally, finally, there it is!  He zooms in and lands and feeds on a big beautiful circle of …….dog poop.  Sustenance at last.  He feeds and feeds, almost un-mindful of the human stalking him with the silvery thing with the shiny blackish eye.  He feeds and flexes his wings, fanning his now too-warm body as it glistens in the sun.  He will return to the purple petunia only after several long and delicious minutes of devouring his fresh, meaty meal.  
The human mentally names him Deciduoso after observing his deliberate actions, decisions, skimming first one plant than another, to get to the interesting – and tasty? stuff.  Yuk!
The butterfly is a curiosity to the human with the digital camera who wonders why it stays so long on the disgusting pile of Golden Retriever waste and why it so briefly on the beautiful flowers with the sweet-smelling nectar.  This is a mystery to be solved.  Destination library, after first stopping for an online search.  Is this normal behavior for this species of butterfly? 
A search entry for “black butterflies” online reveals several photographs.  Deciduoso is actually a Black Swallowtail and the one in the yard is a male because of the distinctive coloring. 
“Yessss!!”  says Jake, clicking on a link for more information.  Wikipedia posts lead to details.  Butterflies are insects.  The Black Swallowtail butterfly’s scientific classification involves the Arthropoda Phylum, Insecta class, Order Lepidoptera, something Family, Genus and Species.  Hmmm.  Whatever.  This is free information, so Jake reads on, not terribly interested in the official name stuff.  Jake actually recalls some science class stuff -- that insects pollinate plants and they help recycle garbage as links in the natural food chain.  Another link.
“After mating, small, yellow eggs are laid, typically on garden plants from the carrot family, including dill, fennel and parsley.”  None of that in our yard, Jake knows.
“The Black Swallowtail has an orange ‘forked gland,’ called the osmeterium.  When in danger the osmeterium, which looks like a snake’s tongue, ejects and releases a foul smell to repel predators.”  Jake is intrigued.  A butterfly with a snake’s tongue! Yowee! Cool! But what about food choices?  Back to the browser’s search page.
Click.  The next link is and this site’s information includes a statement that adult butterfly food is nectar from flowers including red clover, milkweed, and thistles.  Nothing about dog poop.  Interesting.  Ver-r-ry interesting.  
Jake emails the seventh grade science teacher, not mentioning the dog poop picture, and receives more information about butterfly feeding habits.
“With few exceptions, adult butterflies don’t really eat but they do drink various liquids to maintain their water balance and energy stores.  It’s generally the caterpillar stage that does all the eating so the butterfly stage can focus on procreation. There are some carnivorous butterfly, such as the Harvester butterfly.  However, most butterflies are strict vegetarians.” 
“Wow!”  Jake says out loud and thinks, Is the Black Swallowtail photographed in their yard some sort of weirdo creature? 
Back outside to the dog poop area with the camera and my, oh my there are two more, one yellow and one brown butterfly feeding on the poop -- and the male Swallowtail Deciduoso is back.  Or, maybe it is a different male. 
I wonder if our dog has been eating dill or fennel that has gone through to the poop?  Jake thinks, stealthily taking more photographs.  The science teacher also said that butterflies only live for 3 days so Jake wonders if this is the last day for this Swallowtail and maybe that is why it is eating different food?  Maybe as it dies it grasps for something… not its normal food?  Maybe its sense of smell has already died and the poop smells sweet?  Maybe this butterfly is just whacko?!
Jake does not find anything else online that is helpful about explaining Deciduoso’s food choices but Mom agrees to the library trip. 
The librarian recommends A World for Butterflies book because it has lots of photographs along with scientific information.   On page 183, Jake reads “The black swallowtail feeds on members of the carrot family…” and wonders if there are carrots in the Golden Retriever’s dog’s food. On page 190, the book says “Butterflies spend 50 per cent or more of their time looking for food.  Factors that affect food choice include the sex and age of the butterfly, the weather conditions, and the type of available flowers or other food sources.” 
Other food sources”? Jake pauses a beat, “means… what?”
“Butterflies need the ‘high energy’ of flower nectar, composed mostly of sugar, to sustain their flight muscles.  … Favorite flowers include daisies, the mustards, and peas.”  Jake doesn’t think that mustards and peas are sweet, so butterflies must have very different taste buds than humans.  “Oh, wait, the book means the mustard and plant blooms -- flowers!”    Jake mumbles.  Reads more.  Finally!!  Page 192 reveals the answer to the mystery of Deciduoso’s feeding!    
“While it’s true that the nectar from flowers makes up the bulk of the diet … their need for salts, nitrogen, amino acids …drives their need to seek out alternative food sources.  These include wet soil, and such unappealing foodstuffs as rotting fruit or vegetables, the juices of dead animals, sweat, or dung.”  Dung?  Jake remembers that as another name for feces, and that means ….dog poop!  Jake turns the page and finds big color photographs of butterflies.  One is feeding on fox poop, another is feeding on bird poop, and one is feeding on owl pellets -- otherwise known as owl puke.  The article goes on to explain about plants not having all the salts that butterflies, like other animals need for survival.  Male butterflies often visit specific kinds of plants for special nutrients they need in order to attract a mate. Huh!? Jake laughs out loud.  Deciduoso is normal, after all.  Go figure. He’s trying to find a mate.
“Oh, well,” she thinks as Mom offers a visit to the St. Louis County Butterfly House when they are back in the car and Jake has explained her mysterious butterfly and her made up name for it.  The butterfly house is just a few blocks away from their subdivision.  “Can Jessicah go too?” she asks.  “Sure,” Mom says, “as long as her Mom sends her with admission money. I’m tired of always paying for both of you…”   

Selected References

Schappert, P.  (2000)  Buffalo, New York:   Firefly Books.  retrieved 8/10/2007

1 comment:

Ken said...

Well.. what a perfect story for middle grades! It has the elements of mystery.. search for clues and yucky stuff! You hooked me! I guess in every man is a boy looking for adventure! And.. thanks for the science lesson!