Butterflies in February?
By Nina A. Koziol
On a sunny winter day a few years ago, I strolled into our Palos-area garden looking for signs of snowdrops. The snow was melting, leaving behind large patches of wet soil around the tree trunks. The air was calm and the day was somewhat downright mild for February — almost 50 degrees. Out of the corner of my eye, something darted just above the ground — a mourning cloak! I had read that mourning cloak and question mark butterflies occasionally ventured out from their winter hideaways — they overwinter here and can find shelter under loose bark or in a woodpile or perhaps a hollow tree trunk.
The mourning cloak is a “brushfooted” butterfly—so called because the pair of front legs is covered with short bristles. Other common brushfoots include the painted lady, red admiral, question mark and fritillary. The mourning cloak’s wing spread is about 3 to 3 1/2 inches across, and its dark purple-black wings with a yellow border and blue spots make it truly unique among our local garden butterflies. On a mild winter day you may find a mourning cloak basking in the sun warming its wing “muscles.”
Unlike most other short-lived butterflies, the mourning cloak can survive almost a year. In spring, the females lay clusters of eggs on branches of willows, aspen, Eastern cottonwood, American elm, hackberry and birch. The caterpillars are a communal bunch — eating together as a group. You may discover a mourning cloak butterfly feeding on rotting fruit under an apple or pear tree. They’ll also sip from dripping tree sap, from fruit tree blossoms and — ick —from animal droppings that provide them with minerals and salt. During hot summer weather, mourning cloaks rest in a reproductively dormant state. But as the weather cools, they begin feeding again. And the cycle starts over when they hide away during the winter.
So when you find yourself in a garden on a warm sunny day in February, keep your eyes open. You may spot one of these winged wonders.