Mexican Migrants In My Backyard: Monarch Butterfly Migration

Art of a Monarch butterfly Garden, Watercolor by Ann Litrel

Now that my boys are grown and gone, I sometimes feel like the only kid left outside in our neighborhood. When I see a turtle, I run out to take a picture and give it a name. (So far I’ve named eight.) When my husband finds a cool bug like a writing spider or praying mantis, he knows to send me a picture because it makes me happy.

And in September every year, I go out in my garden to look for monarch caterpillars in my milkweed.

Passing neighbors no doubt wonder what I’m doing – a middle aged lady with sketchbook and camera, crouching down to stare at something no one else can see. That’s okay. As the world becomes more developed, I’m interested in what small animals, bugs and critters can survive in my yard – a tiny oasis of wild plants and flowers in the middle of a big subdivision.

Who Feeds Them?

When I was a kid, every first grade classroom had a glass fish tank for hatching monarch butterflies. Every kid got to see the caterpillar form a chrysalis and hatch two weeks later into a grown butterfly.

Nowadays, the monarch butterfly’s annual flight to and from Mexico appears in innumerable documentaries. It’s named one of the world’s “ten great animal migrations.” What you might not know is that the entire migration takes four generations to complete. The female butterfly that flies north from Mexico in spring to mate, lay her eggs, and die, is the great grandmother of the butterfly that makes its way back south in the fall to hibernate. He or she will roost sleeping with millions of its fellow monarchs, and then fly north in the spring to mate and start the cycle all over again.

Fifty years ago, milkweed was common along roads and in fields. It’s the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. In my small hometown in the Midwest, we could always find a stand of milkweed – with caterpillars – to bring to class for the annual hatching.

This was not true for my sons. In the manicured subdivision where we live now, anything that vaguely resembles a natural field is sprayed or mowed down to create the appearance of conforming green. Outside subdivisions in rural areas, most farms use herbicides, killing the strips of wildflowers between fields that used to feed and host butterflies in their migrations.

Home Owners Form a Grassroots Rescue Operation

Across the country, many people have joined together to fill the gap, swelling into a grassroots movement to plant Monarch waystations in their own gardens. These small plots and patio pots include nectar flowers for butterflies, and host plants for caterpillars to eat. In an amazing feat of species survival, even a tiny spot of asters can call a monarch down from the sky to feed, and lay their eggs if they are so fortunate to find a milkweed.

As I write this article, I take a break every few hours to watch a baby monarch caterpillar eat milkweed I’ve placed in a jar. By the time this magazine appears, the caterpillar will have made its chrysalis and hatched. And hopefully, I will see it spread its wings and take off on its flight for a long winter’s sleep in Mexico.

Plant a Monarch Waystation This Fall for Next Spring

Nectar Flowers for Adult Butterflies

  • magenta Echinacea
  • purple Liatris
  • gold Black-Eyed Susan
  • pink Joe-Pye Weed
  • yellow Sneezeweed

Host Plants for Monarch Caterpillars

  • Common milkweed
  • Butterfly weed

Online sources for native plants:


Monarch caterpillar feeding on a milkweed leaf in this Georgia suburbs garden.

Just hatched: a baby monarch caterpillar feeds on a milkweed leaf in my Atlanta suburban garden.

Carpe Diem

Art Showing Joe-Pye Weed and Summer Butterflies

Swallowtails and Joe Pye Weed, A Healing Garden

For August, I want to share something from my journal last year.

August 8, 2015

I am healing this week.

The breast surgeon cut a gash in my right breast to remove a lump of flesh. Stage Zero, carcinoma in situ.

I am in no pain, so it’s hard to rest. I go outside every few hours. The Joe-Pye weed billows down the hill in my backyard, six feet tall. It began blooming a few weeks ago and hardly drew any visitors, but now, in its third week, it has begun to take on the quality of an independent colony.

Iridescent blue wasps, honeybees, plodding black carpenter bees, odd flying insects of spotted colors I have never seen. Dozens and dozens of small butterflies.

And this week, the swallowtails and fritillaries have begun to alight.

When down there, I stand in reverie, letting this swath of nature wash over me with the buzzing and fluttering and hum of life.

The energy feels like a healing balm. I drink in the medicine, letting the sun and the sounds of a meadow filter into my subconscious, into my pores like an unseen serum.

It’s a cloud, a mist of energy or life. Surrounded as it is by quiet and unmoving green, it almost feels like a starship or perhaps a space colony, humming with energy from another dimension – as though it could separate from the earth below and take off into the sky at any moment.

It vibrates with a higher energy than the spaces around it.

Over the three weeks I’ve watched it – it must act as a kind of homing beacon – more and more butterflies find it. Fritillaries flitter around each other, bees hover over the blossoms. Black swallowtails fly in to join a half dozen yellow.

This afternoon I found a katydid on the milkweed. I never get to see bugs like this. A little lizard dashed off into the grasses.

My mom Elizabeth Wallace and me

My mom, Elizabeth Wallace, and me

My mom stands out with me.

She is one of the people whom I know can stand in a patch of grass and listen to the insects buzzing, and think it’s just as rich and wonderful as I do. This time together feels precious. Mom is getting older. So am I. Who knows how long we have to enjoy unhurried conversation, moments as insignificant as standing in a small garden of grass and billowing wildflowers and enjoying the hum of insects, the flitter of scores of butterflies?

But I don’t enter these meditations until later, when I reflect upon the moment.

I’m just there, basking in it.


 A “Carpe Diem” Butterfly Garden

Try these natives from your local nursery:
Joe-Pye Weed      Blue asters      Goldenrod     Coneflower (Echinacea)

Online, you can order butterfly plant or seed collections from “A Native Gardener’s Companion,”


Midwinter Visitors

Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers

The Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers.

Today as ice fell from the white-gray sky, I remembered a bitter day a decade ago. The February morning was cold, and my two sons Tyler and Joseph and I stayed inside. Subdued in our post-holiday routines, the hours passed slowly. But around midmorning, an unfamiliar sound outside became noticeable. Barely audible at first, it grew, seeming to draw nearer, until it became a distinct twittering and chirping, a swelling of voices – birds singing!

“Mommy, come see!” My five-year old Joseph was pressed against the window. Tyler and I followed. The sky was alive – electrified – with birds. Flitting from tree to tree – birds, and more birds, circling tree trunks, probing bark, poking through the leaves.

Scores of chickadees and titmice filled the yard, along with birds I had never seen – small brisk woodpeckers, a nuthatch with a brown head, a little warbler with a flash of yellow at its tail. Tyler brought forth the bird guide, and we repeated each name for Joseph as we found it: Downy Woodpecker! Brown-headed Nuthatch! Yellow-rumped Warbler!

But our visitors moved on long before we tired of the show. The yard emptied like a sieve, leaking life and song. For hours the boys talked about the birds. Why had they come? Where had they gone? And they lamented – why did they leave so soon?

A field guide dispelled the mystery:  “…Continuing throughout fall and winter into early spring, mixed foraging flocks patrol forests and fields…mostly insectivorous species…A forest will appear empty of birds in winter, only to suddenly have the trees swarming with vocalizing chickadees, titmice, and other species.”

All our feeders filled with seed, all the fruiting shrubs planted just for birds – and our visitors were after plain old insects. I couldn’t help but laugh.

The birds never returned. Yet they sang in my memory all winter long, a bright song in that dark season. And one day as I sadly looked upon my cold silent yard it came to me – their visit was not just a memory; it was a promise – a promise that even in the cold of winter, Life would endure, a promise that one spring morning the silence would end and we would hear the songs once more.

How do birds survive the winter? Many small birds have an average body temperature of 107 degrees, and can forage with no apparent discomfort. The typical chickadee has 2000 feathers, with muscular control over all of them. It “fluffs” these feathers to gain better insulation. Some species actually roost together in tree cavities to conserve heat. These include the Brown Creeper, the Winter Wren, the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the Eastern Bluebird.

Drawing birds closerTo attract foraging birds, you can try making a thin “pssh pssh” sound or kissing the back of your hand – sounds which mimic distress calls.

A good nature guide for reading: John Krichner’s Ecology of Eastern Forests, of the Peterson Field Guide series.