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Speaking of Nature

Kids & Critters: The Morning Cloak Butterfly

The mourning cloak can easily hide amongst brown and withered leaves.
Bill Danielson photo

The mourning cloak can easily hide amongst brown and withered leaves. Bill Danielson photo

When you think of butterflies, you probably don’t think of winter. Instead, you probably think of green summer meadows and brightly-colored butterflies flitting from flower to flower on the warm breeze. Or perhaps you think of crisp autumn days when asters and goldenrods decorate the fields with their purple and yellow hues; the different flowers being visited by a host of late butterflies looking for one last meal.

Winter, on the other hand, is not a butterfly month. It’s cold, there are no flowers blooming, and there is nothing that a butterfly would possibly find at all interesting. But did you ever wonder where the butterflies go? If they aren’t here, then where are they?

Well, many of you are probably familiar with the story of the monarch butterfly. This species is famous for its migration, not only because it is so long (they fly all the way to Mexico), but also because it is so specific (all of the monarchs in the world go to a very specific place in Mexico). It may interest you to know that there are other species that also migrate, just not the same distance as the monarch.

What I think might truly amaze you, however, is the fact that some butterflies stay right here. They are all around us, but they are hiding from birds and squirrels that might eat them if they were found. As a result, they are quite effectively hiding from you and me as well, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t here.

The butterfly I am speaking of is called the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). This is one of the most common and widespread of the butterflies, but it is possible that you have never seen one because they have such an interesting life cycle. This idea of simply hiding through the winter has got to be the most interesting part, too.

Wherever you find trees, barns, woodsheds, or old abandoned houses you can probably find a mourning cloak if you look long enough. An adult has a wingspan of about three inches, which makes it a fairly large butterfly when its wings are open, but when it closes its wings it can squeeze into very narrow, flat spaces. Old trees with bark that is starting to peel off are perfect for hibernating mourning cloaks.

They have to find a good place to hide because they are stuck wherever they hide until the weather gets warm again. Birds like woodpeckers probably find many mourning cloaks that made poor choices. Those that survive the winter, however, will emerge as soon as the temperatures warm up. This is largely because mourning cloaks feed on tree sap, which starts to flow in the early spring.

Most of the mourning cloaks that I have ever seen (including the one in the photo) were flying in forests before the leaves had come out. But then they seem to disappear, which has scientists scratching their heads and trying to figure out what happens. It is known that mourning cloaks lay eggs, which hatch into caterpillars and eventually transform into butterflies in July. But then what happens?

Some scientists think the July mourning cloaks lay a second set of eggs and die. Others think the July mourning cloaks go into a special kind of summertime hibernation called “aestivation.” It is thought that this is a way to avoid the hottest and driest time of the year when mourning cloaks might have a particularly hard time finding food. Whatever the case, adult mourning cloaks appear again in late summer and early fall, before finding a place to hide for the winter.

So in the coming weeks, when temperatures can get unseasonably warm (like last week) keep your eyes peeled for mourning cloaks. They are out there, waiting (perhaps impatiently) for spring just like you and me.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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