Yesterday I decided to take Raven on her daily walk in a different direction down the road for a change of pace. Our destination, instead of the abandoned property to the north, was a semi-private road to the south, that leads back through the woods to a row of mostly cottages. There aren’t any “Private Road” signs at the foot of the road, so I’m not actually sure of its status – I won’t go anywhere if there are signs posted, as there are on some such roads, but I also haven’t encountered anyone down there to ask. The road seems to see a bit of traffic even during the winter, but very little, I mostly just know this by tire tracks in the soft road surface. I feel comfortable allowing Raven to bound about off-leash there without risk of encountering cars, and it gives us another place to go when we want a change of scenery.
The day was warmer than it has been in a while, but still only a degree or two above freezing, so I was surprised to discover this Wooly Bear caterpillar crossing the road. Very slowly. I was amazed that he was moving at all, really, given how cold it was, sunshine notwithstanding. I picked him up off the road and placed him in a warm patch of sun at the base of a broad, deeply creviced tree. Hopefully he was able to climb into a nook before dark, though he surely wouldn’t have had time to make himself a cocoon.
Wooly Bears (sometimes known as Banded Wooly Bears) are the caterpillar form of the Isabella Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The photo above is an adult I caught at my blacklight back in June. Isabella Moths have two broods each year, one that mates in the spring and lays eggs that mature and pupate over the summer, and then these adults produce a second fall brood that overwinters as a pupa and emerges in the spring. They’ve got a wide range of foodstuffs, including birch, maple and elm, as well as various grasses, asters, clover, and others. This should make it relatively easy to raise one indoors, providing fresh food each day.
Folk lore suggests that you can tell how severe and/or long the coming winter will be by the amount of black on each end of the caterpillar’s body. Although this is largely bunk, there may be a sliver of truth to it, at least when the caterpillar is being examined close to the onset of cold weather. The red portion of the caterpillar continues to grow as it feeds and matures. Wet weather tends to stunt the development of this portion, making the black bands longer. The early onset of cold or wet weather, and therefore a longer winter, would result in a shorter red portion and longer black segments.
Unlike some fuzzy caterpillars, the hairs of Wooly Bears won’t irritate skin, so they’re safe to handle unless you have particularly sensitive skin. Of course, when you pick one up, most often it will curl into a ball for protection, “playing dead”, as it were. I was delighted to discover there are whole festivals devoted to this common caterpillar, such as the Woolybear Festival in Vermilion, Ohio, in the fall, a pre-winter equivalent to the spring tradition of Groundhog Day. According to Wikipedia, the Vermilion parade “in 2006 involved over 20 marching bands, 2,000 marchers, hundreds of animals, and over 100,000 spectators.”