For years I’ve been telling people that the way to start birding is to take an inventory of what you know and then just build your knowledge, one species at a time, whenever you encounter something that you know is “different.” Most folks can actually identify a solid 10 species of birds, e.g., “crow”, “eagle”, “hummingbird”, “robin”, etc. What I encourage them to do is really learn those few species that they know so they recognize something different when they see it or hear it. That’s actually how I taught myself how to identify birds as a boy. If I heard a song or call I didn’t recognize, I stalked closer until I could get a look at the bird making the sound. Gradually I built a catalog of sounds that went with different species, and I became a proficient (although rather rusty these days) “ear birder.”
Of course, with other taxonomic groups I’m as much a novice as a beginning birder, bewildered by the hundreds of images in a field guide and intimidated by the daunting task of trying to learn to identify them. Butterflies are a great example. I can recognize a few of them on my own, but I’m nowhere near as skilled as a Girl Scout with a butterfly patch. I can do better than that, so I’ve finally decided to take some of my own advice: figure out what butterflies I know and start added species to my catalog that I can tell are something different. I’m not out to become the next Lord Beasley, I’m just looking to be able to put a name to the common butterflies I encounter in my own backyard.
The best way to do that, I surmised, was a three-step process. 1) Attract butterflies so I can have a chance to get a good, close look at them, 2) photograph them using the macro setting on my camera, and 3) compare my photos to those in a good identification guide. I’m using Jeffrey Glassberg’s Butterflies Through Binoculars: The East.
Well, here’s what I knew before I got started: Monarch. If you live in the U.S., are not visually impaired, and go outside occasionally, then you know this one.
Now if you know about Monarchs and you’ve taken a Biology class, then you’ve probably also learned about this one, the Viceroy butterfly. Viceroys are smaller than Monarchs, lack the white spots on the black thorax, and have a black band across the hindwing that monarchs lack. Other than that, they’re very similar:
Viceroys mimic the bold colors and patterns of Monarchs, which in the latter species are a warning that eating a Monarch is hazardous to your health. That’s because the host milkweeds on which Monarch caterpillars feed contain toxic chemicals that the caterpillars are able to process and sequester in their tissues. This makes adult Monarchs quite distasteful to predators like birds. Viceroys do not feed on milkweeds and are, I assume, delicious to a hungry bird. But their coloration likely fools many would-be predators that they are Monarchs, and therefore, not good eating. Judging from the bite taken out of the right hindwing of the individual above, however, it doesn’t look like their ruse works with 100% efficiency!
Other than those two, it’s kind of hard to learn one’s butterflies without making an effort to do so. I’ve had a camera with me on a few occasions when I’ve stumbled onto a pretty or otherwise interesting butterfly, and I’ve been able to key out some of those species. Here are three I’ve learned just from being in the right place at the right time:
But the way to really make some headway is to garden for butterflies, i.e., provide them with host plants or food plants for the adults that will attract them. I’ve done that for years by planting native species like purple coneflower in my beds, providing specific larval host plants like parsley for Black Swallowtails, investing in some plants with showy blooms for my patio, and even by letting “weeds” spring up in my lawn and giving them the chance to flower. Here are some species I’ve attracted through my informal gardening for butterflies:
I’ve found this spring, however, that gardening for butterflies is nowhere near as effective as garbaging for butterflies! By garbaging, I mean setting out old fruits and other foods specifically to attract butterflies. I’ve long used watermelon for these exploits, but this spring i made a concerted effort to provide raisins, bananas, oranges, prunes, and apples in these little dishes on my bird feeding support pole. The fruits – especially bananas – attract a wide variety of species who get so focused on their sugary treats that they allow close approach and careful scrutiny. This has allowed me to learn maybe 5 or 6 new species this spring!
This one has to be my new favorite. Seen from above, the Question Mark is a bold black and orange butterfly that is common in wooded areas:
It’s only from below that its name makes sense. The first thing that strikes you about this species is its convincing camouflage as a dead leaf when the undersides of the wings are exposed. The hindwing holds a secret though: See the tiny white dot and white curved line? Together they form a question mark shape!
I’ve been lucky enough to have my mind blown by 88s down in Mexico, but it sure is neat to have these Question Marks right in my own backyard!
So there you have it. I now know about 15 different species of butterflies when back in February I might have been able to name only about 5 or 6. I’ll update this post in the fall – maybe for Thanksgiving – to report on the number I’m able to learn this summer. If you want to learn the common butterflies around your home, I can’t recommend garbaging strongly enough!