Thursday, April 4, 2013

Mourning Cloak Butterfly, Harbinger of Spring

Our Mourning Cloak with proboscis extended.
Sring in our home is a very busy time. The ordering of caterpillars is high on our to do list and is a much anticipated event. This year we find ourselves in a unexpected butterfly situation. It began one day in early March.

There was nothing unusual about our daily walk home from school, lively discussions with friends and neighbors, pats on the heads of our fury friends as we walked along and then a shrill of joy, "mom, mom, a butterfly!" Joy turned to concern as we looked closely and observed that the butterfly was struggling. Half a wing had been torn off.

"Can we take him home mom?" "Yes," I replied, my mind racing as to what we were going to do with our new friend from nature. Thinking he was a Swallow Tail and wondering how he was surviving in what was still a very unpredictable New England spring, I thought this little guy or girl (we refer to the butterfly as a boy because we are unable to identify its gender) would be with us a day at the most. That was in the beginning of March, it is now April and as I blog, he is happily sitting next to me on a rotten piece of fruit.

As we walked home with our wounded butterfly on that early spring day, I had no idea that we were going to learn another interesting lesson from nature.  I stopped to talk with a neighbor, while engaging in conversation my neighbor had to ask, what's up with the butterfly on your arm. The little guy crawled up my sleeve while I was talking! So off we went to settle the butterfly into our home.

Creating what I thought would be a temporary habitat for our wounded friend seemed simple enough. We set him in our Butterfly Garden kit, inserted a few sticks, some sugar water and some fruit.

Every day for two weeks we would let the butterfly out to stretch his wings, he seemed to like the sugar water, would land on the fruit and liked walking on the sticks. What I could not figure out is how he was still alive.  So, I took a photo and when I dropped my son off for his weekly Audubon class I showed the photo to a naturalist who told me that what I had was indeed a Mourning Cloak Butterfly.

It all made sense, for weeks I could not answer the questions that people would ask. "You found it as a butterfly? How did it survive the freezing nights? To that I thought, it must have either been released from a butterfly kit or perhaps caught in the wind during migration. None of the above. We had a Mourning Cloak. It was living as nature intended it to live, overwintering and emerging as a first sign that Spring was coming to New England.

The Mourning Cloak is an amazing butterfly, it is one of the first butterflies to appear as the days start to lengthen at the end of the winter, usually several weeks before spring. The reason for this seemingly anomalous behavior is that the Mourning Cloak overwinters as an adult. Amazing.

Even more amazing, The Mourning Cloak is capable of surviving the cold of the winter through "cryo-preservation," a generic term for the various methods used by animals that have not evolved a migratory pattern and must survive temperature extremes. The Mourning Cloak secretes chemicals that act as anti-freeze to prevent ice formation.

Mourning Cloaks live for almost a year, the life cycle begins when the overwintering adults emerge in the spring to mate, the males basking in the sun pending the approach of a female.

So here we are almost one month with our Mourning Cloak friend. With a torn wing and limited flight we watch him enjoy his days in his butterfly sanctuary, we allow him to sun himself on our enclosed porch. We found that offering him water and rotting fruit, time to fly and spread his uneven wings and sticks to climb are making him happy. Sad that he (or she) will not be able to complete his mission in life to reproduce, we can simply just offer our new friend a sanctuary to spend the rest of his days.

Visit a butterfly sanctuary in Massachusetts:
Butterfly Garden at the Museum of Science
The Butterfly Place, Westford, MA
Magic Wings South Deerfield, MA

How to care for injured Butterflies:
Fixing butterfly wings
First aid for butterflies

Butterfly Books
The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies
The Family Butterfly Book
Stokes Butterfly Book: The Complete Guide to Butterfly Gardening, Identification, and Behavior

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