Monday, March 24, 2014

Late Winter Rains and Army Cutworms

Southwest Idaho's Winter of Ice Fog ended when snow fell in early February. The ridge of high pressure that had smothered us under a season-long inversion broke up. This allowed a procession of rainstorms to wash in from the Pacific.

The Treasure Valley smelled of damp, warm soil. Ranchers, farmers, and water managers cheered the promise of grass, irrigation water, and ample snow pack. An artist used every shade from Absinthe to Wintergreen to paint the Boise Green Belt in living color.

The rains were too late to save this year’s crop of cheatgrass in the dry areas along the Snake River, south of town. Last fall, a prodigious storm had germinated a flush of the winter annual grass, along with its annual mustard cousins. Sadly for the plants, their good luck didn't last. Happily for me, their misfortune confirmed an accusation I'd made 11 years earlier.

Large numbers of miller moths had preceded the rains. The eggs they laid hatched into army cutworms a month or so later. The larvae soon got down to business eating the tiny green plants.

The dry winter that followed was ideal for the cutworms, which develop fungal diseases in damp weather. But the cheatgrass and mustards struggled without rain. The annual plants died from lack of water or were consumed by army cutworms. Perennial grasses, mostly short Sandberg bluegrass, survived on the hills above areas where the annuals had died.

Hungry army cutworms roamed the bare areas looking for food...

...or hid under cowpies, out of the wind...

...but within reach of hungry centipedes.

The larvae became arboreal and climbed sagebrush...

...and fourwinged saltbush and kept eating.

Army cutworms also climbed the hills to munch on Sandberg bluegrass, which seemed able to outgrow the larvae's feeding.

When they ran out of plants to eat, the cutworms dined on their fallen relatives.

In 2003, I saw bare areas around Winnemucca, NV that resembled this year's dieoffs along the Snake River. After months of sleuthing, I found that army cutworms were probably responsible for the 2003 damage. This year, I caught the culprit cutworms in the act.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dangerous Honking Epidemic Sweeps the Treasure Valley

This public health menace increases heart disease and stroke and threatens driver and pedestrian safety.

The scourge touched me as I walked past the front bumper of an urban cowgirl’s pickup truck in downtown Nampa. The truck’s horn blasted a 100-decibel HONK! I jumped as fight-or-flight chemicals fine tuned by thousands of generations of my nimble ancestors kicked in. Cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine gushed into my bloodstream. My heart pounded, my breathing increased, and my muscles tensed. The driver had waited until she was across the street, safely away from the blast zone, before she hit the lock button on her key fob. She was at the end of the next block, still chatting with her family, when my heart rate and breathing slowed to near normal.

My successfully evolved body prepares me to run or protect myself when I’m drifting off to sleep and a neighbor HONKS outside my bedroom window. And again when he forgets where or not he locked the car after he cracks a beer--HONK. And when he checks again as he’s going to bed--HONK. Each time, more stress chemicals clog my bloodstream, raise my blood pressure, and suppress my immune system.

At 2:25 a.m. another neighbor can’t hear the car HONK with the noise of the bar still ringing in her ears. She HONKS several times. Then it’s just 3½ hours until two robust HONK-HONKS as the remote start roars to life on a third neighbor’s red Dodge Ram truck with after-market muffler.

I fall sleep between the HONKINGS while my risk of heart disease and stroke increase. Loud noises are deadly dangerous and sudden loud noises are even more so.

Car and truck horns are close to the pitch of a human scream for help. The same internal safety system that protects me from noisy, dangerous predators insists I pay attention to the screams of others of my species--whatever is killing them might get me, too! Each HONK alerts me to danger.

Turning left into four lanes of heavy traffic on Fairview, I check two lanes left, two lanes right, look for drivers using the center turn lane as their private driving lane, watch for bicycles and joggers on the sidewalk to the left, to the right, check for cars turning from the street across the intersection, double check for cars to the left, right, bicyclists, joggers, then finally pull ou--HONK! Where?? Who’s going to hit me? Who am I going to hit? I CAN’T SEE WHAT’S WRONG!! Someone locked their car in the parking lot across the street.

"HONK" no longer means “Watch out! You’re in danger!” It means “I’m going inside now.” While being assaulted with deadly sudden noise, we’re being retrained to ignore HONKING while driving and walking. What if we need to warn someone that their life is in danger? What if someone needs to warn us that our life is in danger?

Percy Nilsson drilled holes in the tires of an ice cream truck in Sweden because he wanted to start a conversation on HONKING. The truck’s 100 HONKS per hour drove him to drill.

Just yesterday, I heard HONK, HONK, HONK--blasts from three separate drivers--as I walked the length of the Post Office building on 13th Street in Boise. The trip takes about 1½ minutes, which means an hourly HONK rate of 120: 20% more than the rate that punctured tires in Sweden.

Let’s start a conversation on HONKING in Boise before we have an epidemic of flat tires.

Let’s stop damaging the health of our neighbors and endangering the lives of other drivers and pedestrians. Let’s reprogram our car locking systems to healthy, safe silence. In a pinch, we can resort to the ancient technology on the inside of car doors and the even older one appended to the end of our arm.

Treasure Valley residents, please stop HONKING your neighbors into an early grave. Your neighbors will wave thanks using that same handy appendage.