owltalk 2002


7 March 2002


Okay, so I profess to be a biologist, but some things touch my life in a befuddling manner. Take the annual mystery of the flies, for instance. Every field season, when the furnace whirs to life in my temporary quarters, a small population of flies appears. They fly like sots, drunk on the new warmth, landing on my hair, landing on my food.


All along, I had thought that once winter came, the biomass of bug life returned to the earth and was forever rendered inconsequential. I was wrong. That they should appear when the temperature outside scratches zero, meant only one thing: somewhere in the house, hidden in the ductwork lies a primordial feast of flesh and maggots, a Stephen King buffet.


Given some idle hours, I sought answers. I wanted to know where the flies came from. I wanted to know more about their life cycle. I wanted to know if I could stop sleeping with a hatchet under my pillow.


I sought out no less an authority than "Ask Jeeves", an Internet search engine that professes to know something about everything. It does, but only in a superficial manner. Jeeves knows nothing about the reproductive behaviors of boreal owls.


You can imagine my surprise when answers to my query filled the browser screen. There are literally dozens of web sites that specialize in flies. I can understand a lifetime avocation to owls, or the North Woods, but flies? Come on.


Anyway, the answer is that my visitors are cluster flies, also called attic flies. They hibernate (I had no idea) in cozy confines and upon warming, wake up and harass the owl biologist; they have no function other than to harass the owl biologist.


Then again, cluster flies do have one other important function: my mice love them. When one lazily wanders into my personal space, I stop all that I am doing and become a Dipteran stalker. Perhaps I am a bit obsessive in my pursuit, but once the capture is made I am guaranteed at least 15 seconds of entertainment.


After less than a week with a new batch of mice, I have already seen Pavlovian responses from them. They hear the buzzing of wings and know that it is chow time. The mice can't talk, but their actions are saying: "Fresh meat! To hell with those food cubes! We want more cluster flies!"


If 15 years of experience with cluster flies is any barometer, as long as the furnace pumps hot air, my mice will eat well. Take my word for it. And if that is not good enough, just "Ask Jeeves".


W.H. Lane