How we manage our wildlife habitat can mean survival or NOT for the very creatures we attract. Leaving a dead tree standing, a branch with a “hollow” uncut, creating a loose brush pile of fallen limbs, not raking leaves – all of these choices just might mean that the Mourning Cloaks of your garden will survive the winter.
This is one of the few butterflies that survives the winter as an adult, hibernating in a sheltered nook: a hollow tree, in under shutters or shingles, behind a loose piece of bark, in a wood pile, or a “butterfly house.”
Our own butterfly house looks nothing like one of the commercial butterfly houses that you’ve probably been given by a well-meaning friend. It’s a simple structure of criss-crossed tree limbs with roof shingles between some of the layers to keep out the weather. And it works far better than a store bought butterfly house.
As I write this now, in mid-January, a friend has found two hibernating Mourning Cloaks in her outdoor shed. Both are roosting low to the ground (between six inches and one foot). They must have entered the shed one fall day when the door was ajar.
The Mourning Cloak is a true harbinger of spring. On the first warm days of winter, in late February and early March, we prowl woodland roads looking for and finding basking Mourning Cloaks on warm sand and asphalt roads. If winter rears its ugly head again, Mourning Cloaks go back to their sheltered nook to hibernate again until the next spring-like day. You can be sure that the first warm days in February and March my friend will be leaving her shed door ajar.
It is a quite a treat to find a butterfly or moth caterpillar feasting on its favored host plant. So imagine our surprise when on May 22 we discovered over one hundred Mourning Cloak caterpillars on one of our many Dwarf Hackberry trees (Celtis tenuifolia), here in Cape May County, New Jersey.
In Rick Cech and Guy Tudor’s excellent book, Butterflies of the East Coast: An Observer’s Guide, we learned that the adult lays clusters of up to 30-50 eggs. The caterpillars that hatch are communal and thrash in synchrony if disturbed. We were mesmerized and followed their movements day after day until a commitment took us out of town. Upon our return, they were gone, having wandered off to pupate.
This beautiful butterfly, so named because it resembles a velvet coat edged in gold that one might wear when “in mourning,” is attracted to rotting fruit and sap flows on trees.
Though once in a while you may find it nectaring at flowers, as we did here.
If a tree falls in your woods, consider cutting it into pieces and making your own butterfly house as we did. Mourning Cloaks, Question Marks, and Eastern Commas will all benefit, as well as many other overwintering insects.
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