Capistrano has swallows, but Boulder has moths

The moths have returned to Boulder, Colo. It doesn't quite have the romantic ring of "the swallows have returned to Capistrano," does it? Indeed, the moths are not very romantic, but they are everywhere. It's Alfred Hitchcock's rough draft of "The Birds."

The moths are the plain brown variety, generally smaller than a quarter. I have learned from various local experts that these so-called miller moths have a "good year" every 7 to 10 years, with a resulting population explosion.

The moths will no doubt recall 2002 as a very good year.

While utterly harmless, these insects can be quite annoying. They hide in the folds of a curtain until my unsuspecting teenage daughter pulls her drapes closed for the night – and is besieged by a dozen of the hysterically flitting creatures. This instantly makes for a total of 13 hysterically flitting creatures.

Our cat is also quite responsive to the moths. His reaction, however, is more primitive and predatory. First, he alerts the household that a moth has infiltrated our domain. He does this by way of a distinctive meowing that sounds oddly like a meow on a very labored intake of breath.

He watches the moth's every move. His head flicks right, then left, and then right again. All the while, his tail is twitching with ever-growing tension. But the moths are generally quite safe, since our little six-pound Persian is not a great hunter. His forte is entertainment, and entertained we are by his meowing, twitching, flicking show.

But the best show in town is not in our living room. It's at a busy traffic intersection, where both swallows and moths perform their flying dance of the ages for all who come out of their commuter stupor and look up.

The stage is set by two six-lane highways. They intersect where there's a pond and wetland on one corner and a labyrinth of bike and pedestrian underpasses on the others. Given the marsh and the cavelike underpasses, the perimeter of this particular intersection has always teemed with winged wildlife of many varieties.

The miller moths appear to like this spot as much as the birds do, but not just for the water and caves. The moths like the traffic lights. Since the signals constantly change, the moths flit chaotically from one to another. The intersection has been transformed.

I know I'm not the only driver who now approaches this formerly frustrating crossroads hoping aloud, "Please turn red! Please turn red!" To be the first car at the stoplight is to have front-and-center seating at the best show in town.

Swallows swoop and soar. They twist and dip. They dodge and dive. In late afternoon, as many as 100 swallows may be careening through the middle of the intersection. It's an amazing drama and, yes, it adds a certain romance to the drive home. It's a small wonder, ours for the taking if we just pause and look up.

Why, come to think of it, perhaps Capistrano owes its famous romance to the lowly miller moth.

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