Monday 26 September 2016

Country matters: Eyespots of beauty awaken in the spring

Joe Kennedy

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

STRONG LINES OF DEFENCE: The Peacock butterfly’s spots imitate the eyes of predators such as owls
STRONG LINES OF DEFENCE: The Peacock butterfly’s spots imitate the eyes of predators such as owls

Where I'm calling from, there is a stone and slated outhouse in a garden which serves as a laundry.

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There is a useful, if far from state-of-the-art, washing machine within, which is filled by carrying water from a garden tap. This may appear to be from another era - twin tub - but all works efficiently.

The outhouse is not a place of beauty and fragments of plaster from more than a century ago remain stubbornly attached to the walls, a tribute to the apothecary skills of the Edwardian builder.

But something beautiful happened in that grim shed last week. A Peacock butterfly emerged from hibernation to flap at a sunlit window to indicate, despite my scepticism, that spring had finally arrived, like Persephone from the Underworld.

I had last seen Peacocks two years ago on a coastal cliff where a small swarm suddenly arrived on a sailing wind from Wales, flashing those remarkable eyespots like fighter aircraft wings of a long-ago war-time.

These brilliantly coloured concentric circles divert the attention of predatory birds from snapping at the insect's vulnerable body passing in flight. When those wonderful wings are folded, a nondescript dark brown with purplish lines is revealed. This provides good camouflage.

The Peacock has other lines of defence against blue tits and fly catchers. The first is crypsis, by which the insect blends into the environment by mimicking a leaf and remaining still. The principal one of course is flashing of its wings in an intimidating display of threat to approaching birds - domestic fowl even turn aside when exposed to this. The large, bright spots imitate the eyes of predators such as owls and cause a response in the bird's visual system to turn away and utter alarm calls.

The third defence mechanism is sound, a remarkable hissing noise which, with those flashing wings, upsets blue tits especially, and in winter hibernation in darkened places, curious mice show a strong adverse reaction.

I do not know the sex of my callisthenic Peacock but if female, she will only chose one partner.

Males will look for suitable territory to patrol and be alert for passing females. They will perch on bushes and tree branches to view the passing parade. If a female, he will pursue her until she lands and mating should occur. But the courtship is drawn out. The male can be led on a lengthy chase - he must demonstrate high performance flight to win her over!

Defending a desirable territory where there is an abundance of food is vital to the male and if another gent turns up who is also familiar with the place, there will be a stand-off as to who stays. A stranger, however, will be run out of town pronto.

Females who have come out of hibernation will lay eggs now in batches of up to 400 at a time on the uppers and undersides of stinging nettles. Shiny black caterpillars hatch after about a week. The chrysalis can be grey, brown or green.

The adult insects take nectar from flowering plants such as buddleja , dandelions, marjoram, daneworth and clover. They also like rotting fruit and tree sap.

I caught my fluttering Peacock in a plastic tumbler and released it into an old garden with lots of cover.

Resident blue tits were feeding on insects on a mint plant as a hen blackbird, relieved from nest duty, hammered vigorously at a halved apple on a footpath. The Peacock was nowhere to be seen.

Sunday Independent

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