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Hickory Horned Devil!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

All photos in this post by Bill of the Birds.

Bill of the Birds was off to one side, peering up into the pawpaw branchtes, looking for fruit. Suddenly he hollered, three words, three times in a row, at the top of his considerable lungs. It sounded like this:


We peered up where he was pointing and saw something that looked like a thorny hot dog hanging, he ever saw it much less identified it in a nanosecond, I still don't know.

When he had composed himself, he held the camera up closer, and the little Canon G-11 did its very best in a difficult light regime. And that best is real darn good.

By this time, the caterpillar--for a hickory horned devil is a caterpillar, though it looks more like the hero of a planet-destroying Japanese horror flick--had composed itself into its most fearsome persona, compressing and drawing itself up into a sigmoid shape. It drew all its kabuki spines and swords--schwinnng! and made itself ready for whatever terrifying battle it might have to fight.

Dig those crazy black eyespots! Devil, indeed! I can't get over them, nor its enormous, leg-like claspers. (The caterpillar's real head is the little orange unit above the fearsome black eyespots). It was making short work of the hickory's leaves, eating each leaflet entirely before moving onto the next, then presumably backing up the petiole to go destroy another.

This is the larva of the royal walnut moth, or regal moth, as it's sometimes called. Latin: Citheronia regalis. We'd found it in its last growth instar, when it turns from brown to green.

We'd found it on a hickory tree, but they're also found on ash, butternut, cherry, lilac(!!), pecan, persimmon, sumac, sweet gum, sycamore, walnut, and other trees, according to David L. Wagner's WONDERFUL Caterpillars of Eastern North America.
This is a book you simply must have on your shelf. It changed my life.

Grab a Bic or a Flair pen off your desk. That's how long this monster is. And it's as big around as Winston Churchill's fattest stogie. You'd have to use two hands to contain it. And, despite its fearsome appearance, you'd come out unscathed.

For the Hickory Horned Devil is harmless: not poisonous, not even itchy. All he's got to defend himself is

You've got to figure he's delicious, or why would he be so thoroughly frightening?

So we photographed him in situ--Bill of the Birds holding the Canon G-11 waay up over his head while I held the end of the branch down enough to get our frightened quarry in range. But for Bill's long arms, we'd have not much to show for our first-ever encounter with the most coveted caterpillar in North America--on our pawpaw hunting grounds, on our land, no less! Not long from now, he'll climb down to the ground, wander about for awhile, and dig in and pupate underground in a silk-lined earthen cell, resting for the winter like an enormous brown seed before emerging next year as a glorious royal walnut moth.

From Wikipedia. Wish it were mine! This huge moth more than covers your hand. This is a very fresh one, probably still drying its soft, limp wings after emerging from the pupal case.

Being a Science Chimp, I didn't get very far down the trail before I smacked my forehead and said, "I've got to go back and find some horned devil frass!" I'd read that one way to find devils is to see their poop and then look up--a neat trick in deep leaf litter, but still...most of us look down in the woods, and I'm likely to spot something like that someday. I wanted to find the poop so I'd know it the next time I saw it. Now Bill of the Birds--he's always lookin' up.

So I went right back under that horned devil and got down on all fours and muttered and rummaged around for a long time while my family kind of chuckled and rolled their eyes and darned if I didn't find me a very nice bit of fresh devilpoop, a little grenade of compressed used up hickory chaw. It was big enough to completely cover my wedding ring which I can assure you after 17 years is still in situ.

As if the pawpaws weren't enough, I had fresh devilpoop. I think the pawpaw/devilhunt was the best expotition we had all summer. That's nature at its top-of-lungs hollerin' best.

And it's all FREE.


All photos in this post by Bill of the Birds


THAT was cool!

I am green with jealousy. If we have any Gene Stratton Porter fans, wasn't it a Royal Moth that propelled the "Girl of the Limberlost" to success beyond her wildest imaginings? That book is now 101 years old.

Such an awesome creature. I've never seen one myself, but NEED to. Way cool. That's some poo for a caterpillar too.

We have pawpaw, but I am never able to beat the dear to them. What a good day for you. We have all the trees that you mention, but have never seen that caterpillar. We must go in search for that

Wow! (Word verification: reptua.)

What a fabulous find! Bill's got great eyes to spot that, up in the tree branches. We don't get those moths this far north, but they'd be quite something to see!

What a cool little dude. Sunglasses AND a mustache. I've got plenty of hickories....this is a new thing to look for and hope to see one day. :-)

Google Search- how to cure the crazies

That was Liam, posting under my account, just FYI. He is now one of my most avid readers! He likes to use the search box to find things on my blog that involve him. Sort of a 21st century scrapbook.

Amazing! Good thing they aren't as common as gypsy moths or we might be running low on trees by now.

The Wissahickon Nature Club found HHD in Raccoon State Park (PA) just outside of Pittsburgh. Everybody was thrilled! next time I'll look for the poop.

little orange unit!!!

I love your last comment the best Julie, "And its all free!". Isn't that the greatest thing about nature. Beats the heck out of ALL the modern gadgetry...just my opinion. Thanks for sharing.

Wow, simply wow! What big eyes Bill has! I remember someone pointing out a tomato hornworm on a tomato plant and even close up I couldn't find it, and they're big suckers. So many thrills in this post, including seeing the word "frass" in print, after Linda told me it was a word and what it meant--and we couldn't find it in a dictionary anywhere. And you KNOW I need that word in my possession. And you went back and found some! Truly a day to go buy a lottery ticket, if that would have led to anything nearly as wonderful, which it wouldn't.

It is for moments like this that I read your blog. How wonderful, and what an amazing insect. And thanks for the tip--I am going to buy that caterpillar guide. That, unfortunately, is NOT free.... ;-)

Murr, I almost wrote, "This frass is for you," but it seemed so unnecessary. Of course you were floating around in my head as I rummaged around looking for the giant grenade of devilpoop. Science Chimps must take care of each other.

Now I want to know how you got this far in your colorfully pungent life without knowing the word "frass." Honestly. Tsk.


Ohhhh..I want one!

Awesome looking caterpillar and beautiful moth. I have to wonder what you'll do with the scat. ;)


Paw and Poo. No wonder you were so excited. It doesn't get much better, hmmm?

Love his Ray Bans. When you said grab your Bic pen, I thought your imagination got the best of you. There was eye-rolling while you rummaged for poop? Seriously.

Perfect to get us in the Halloween Spirit. I will show the girls when they get home. Love nature!!

Yay! You found the poop!
I must scour the ground and go devil hunting. This spring I saw my first Royal Walnut moth--egads, what a magnificent creature!
Thank you for the chimping...and the reminder to be on the lookout for these wonderful kabuki caterpillars!

Now that's a caterpillar! It's glorious...

VERY cool bug/insect/movie star.
I love oddities like this.
Great find Bill.

A day late - Arrrgh, tis a strange nasty yee have been findin matie.
( I like talk like a pirate day)

That sassy frass might be free but I'm just now pushing that donate button by way of thanking our guide to such wonders of life. Thanks to the whole loony bunch of ya! Leslie Y.

That is one cool critter!

great! Now I'm going to research this and see if they're in my southeastern Michigan area. I love your blog!

Back in the 90's when my 3 kids were still cute like yours, I found a tiny, one inch long Hickory Horned Devil cat munching on my wild persimmon tree.

I brought him into the house, placed him in a suitable container,and supplied him with fresh persimmon leaves every other day.

The kids named him John.

Months went by and John grew to be an enormous clingy boogabooga'n caterpillar.

We would take him out from time to time and the kids were always thrilled to see how powerfully he could cling to them ... and how harmless such a scary looking thing could be.

Eventually, John pupated in the sand at the bottom of the conainer.
The kids worried about him, but I would lift his brown pupa case out and it would wiggle ever so slightly.

"Whew, still alive!" they would announce.

One quiet night, they were in the living room watching "The Little Mermaid" or "Beauty and the Beast" ... I forget which, but they wore those two tapes out.
Suddenly I heard a shriek and calls to come quick.

When I got to the living room, a huge moth was perched on the window.
THAT would not have been so unusual, but this huge moth was INSIDE the house.

The kids thought that it had somehow flown in the door earlier.
On a hunch, I went into the kitchen to check John's pupa case.

Sure enough, it was torn asunder.

The beautiful big moth in the living room was John.

Talk about your teachable moment.
My kids, all grown now, but still kinda cute, still remember John and that night.

Me too.
One of my favorites actually.

Thanks for jogging it Julie.

We found one of these last August at the nature center where I work! Like yours, it had taken on that lovely seafoam shade that meant it had pupatin' on the brain. We rushed to Caterpillars of Eastern North American (!!) to determine its identity and, once satisfied it was (mostly) harmless, I had no compunctions about enticing it onto my hand.

Here's a photo of it next to my hand, for scale.

In hand

Keep on truckin'

Easily one of the coolest wildlife encounters I've ever had!

Incidentally, that same caterpillar guide saved me from intense pain a few days later, when I recognized a Saddleback Caterpillar from browsing through the book and decided, despite its considerable cuteness and diminutive size, NOT to pick it up with my bare hands. Apparently their sting can be excruciating!

Fabulous! I have a giant pretzel jar in my kitchen with six pupae of Tomatoe Horn worms. I put them in there as the evil tomatoe devastating caterpillars. I'm waiting waiting for them to morph so I can complete my documentary series on this much maligned beast. You are a woman after my heart!

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