Friday, March 21, 2014

Canoga Park Celebrates Spring With Crane Fly Days, March 22-23

By Blythe Moorcraft, Quilt staff


It’s official: Spring has come to Canoga Park.

And although the season of rebirth technically began yesterday, Thursday, March 20th, Andrej Ciernik, 5, of the tight-knit Strath-Minta neighborhood, has reason to believe differently:
Andrej Ciernik
Photo: Ellen Ciernik

Over two weeks ago, on March 4th, the young Northgate Avenue resident saw what is believed to have been the first crane fly of the season.

“It came flying in here and I said ‘Papa, Papa, look at the big mosquito!’ And he didn’t believe me at first.”

Says proud dad Martin Ciernik, “First of all, I thought maybe he was mistaken until I saw it; and second, I was really surprised he wasn’t afraid - Jesus Christ, those things are freaky! He even tried to catch it, but it managed to get away. I found it later on the wall in the bathroom, and I snapped a couple pictures with my iPhone before I smooshed it with my shoe and flushed it down the toilet.”
Welcome, Friend: Andrej Ciernik spotted
what was likely this spring's first crane fly.
Photo: Martin Ciernik.

Crane flies, locally known as a benign harbinger of spring, are indeed often mistaken for large mosquitos. Yet despite the resemblance, experts insist the loping, clumsy fliers pose no discernible threat to Canoga Park residents. 

Named Official Bird of Canoga Park in 1933 by the [then] Owensmouth Neighborhood Council in the hours immediately following the repeal of Prohibition, the large insects have long been an important part of Canoga Park culture. They’re found everywhere from front and center on an early version of the Canoga Park seal, to many of our local murals, incorporated in the metalwork of the iron railings along the new Orange Line busway, and even in the decorative mosaic tiles in Woodland Hill’s nearby Orcutt Ranch. 

“The Canoga Indians - who were indigenous to this region until they were massacred by settlers in the mid-19th century - relied on the crane fly for many things,” says Bob Farrell of the Owensmouth / Canoga Historical Society. 

“Teenage squaws would mash up the crane flies’ bodies into a goo that they’d use to paste cabinet cards of Sitting Bull on to the walls of their tepees. Their fathers would use the crane flies’ long legs as an early type of dental floss to remove possum gristle from their teeth. Sometimes the women of the tribes, if they could get to the flies before their daughters, would appropriate the bitter, foul-tasting insect as a last resort to extend the possum loaf if unexpected company dropped in. The flies’ mashed carcasses have also been used as a paint or dye, when a muddy grayish-brown hue was needed.”
Two members of the hardy Canoga
band of Indians.     Photo: Owens-
mouth Canoga Historical Society.

Unlike other native American tribes, the Canoga weren’t particularly interested in using ‘every part of the animal.’ 

“Crane flies’ wings were just tossed out,” Farrell notes.

That is, until the Leadwell Carriage Company opened up shop here in town in 1877. The manufacturer (whose factory sat on the site now occupied by Döner King on Shoup) was faced with a severe shortage of mica for their horse-drawn carriage windows when owner Thomas Leadwell noticed a small contingent of the remaining Native Americans catching crane flies, mashing them up, pasting up pictures of Sitting Bull in their homes, and flossing their teeth - but throwing out the wings.
Thomas Leadwell, c. 1880
Photo: Owensmouth Canoga
Historical Society

“Leadwell was no fool,” Farrell says of the carriage manufacturer. “He offered the Indians a penny a pound for the discarded wings and patented a method for pressing them into thin but surprisingly sturdy carriage window panes. Then, as new settlers moved to the area, schoolchildren undercut the Canoga, offering a pound and a half of the wings for a penny, effectively driving the few remaining Native Americans further into poverty and forcing them to join the nearby Valley Circle tribe.

The Canoga are long forgotten, but the crane fly continues to thrive. Says Will Gibson of Green Thumb Nursery, “We do sell a few varieties of crane fly feeders as well as a number of plants to attract crane flies to your yard.”

First grader Kayla Pfeiffer-Gonzalez's colorful
winning contest entry. Photo: Judy Maxwell.
Local schools, too, celebrate the beloved insect. Canoga Park Elementary commemorated the arrival of spring with a weeklong unit about the soon-to-be-omnipresent bug that encompassed science, history, social studies and even math subjects (Did you know a single crane fly will lay over 2,400 eggs in a single six-hour period?) that culminated in a coloring contest. 

Community business leader Arby’s was pleased to present the winner, first grader Kayla Pfeiffer-Gonzalez, with a certificate for two Arby-Q sandwiches.

As usual, the first weekend following the arrival of spring is Crane Fly Days here in Canoga Park. Look to local merchants running crane fly-themed discounts, including restaurants, especially those with patios - offering specials at dusk - when crane flies are active, and most likely to awkwardly flutter their way into your open mouth while popping in a forkful of Organic Kale Salad. And of course there’s the annual Crane Fly Parade on Sherman Way this Saturday, from two to four p.m., celebrating its 83rd anniversary.

The joy we get from the relationship with our friend the crane fly is, alas, tinged with tragedy: the gangly insect only lives a scant twenty-four hours. Thankfully, the hatching of their larva is staggered over a month and a half period, so local residents will enjoy seeing the Official Canoga Park Bird well into the beginning of May.

And once they’re gone? Hopefully we can mitigate our sorrow by turning our attention to Canoga Park’s bountiful population of then-emerging feisty black widow spiders.

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