Tale of an overwintering butterfly

This falls under my learn something new category. I never knew adult butterflies can overwinter in the cold winter climate of Connecticut. Neither did my neighbor Gail, until she found an adult butterfly resting in her firewood pile on a very cold January day.

Imagine her surprise when the butterfly moved, which urged her to scoop it up to bring inside where temperatures were much more hospitable. She was concerned that she had destroyed Mr. Butterfly’s home, and felt obliged to find him a new one. (For the sake of this tale we will assume it is a him.)

Mr. Butterfly found shelter in a spare bedroom where he could warm his wings in the glow of the sun and the resident cats could not reach him. His menu included sugar water and fruit.

He seemed happy to be out of the cold and took full advantage of his sunny window, often sitting in the sun with wings spread, as if to say “Ahhhhhh.”

Gail did a bit of sleuthing and found the Magic Wings Butterfly Conservatory in Massachusetts, which informed her that Mr. Butterfly is a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). It is quite normal for mourning cloaks to overwinter in the adult stage; they are quite hardy. According to this article, their dark wings serve as solar collectors, warming their butterfly blood enough to allow them to fly in early spring.

As it turns out, Gail’s instincts on what to feed Mr. Butterfly were spot on. They prefer sap and fermenting fruit.

We’ve tried to capture Mr. Butterfly on camera, but he’s kind of shy. When ever anyone comes too close he finds a place to hide, so the photo below, which I suspect is also a morning cloak, will have to suffice.

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Mr. Butterfly continues to thrive under Gail’s attentive care. She plans to release him back outside when the weather gets a bit warmer. Then he will likely seek out a mate.

Mourning cloaks lay eggs on host plants, often willows, elms, cottonwood or birch and oak tree sap is their preferred food.

They are not unusual. If one catches your eye this spring, take the time to check out their wing patterns – they are quite striking and very photogenic if you can catch one sitting still.

Gail is quite happy that Mr. Butterfly came into her life … so am I. He taught us both a little bit more about the world right under our noses, or, in this case, lurking in a common old wood pile.

Read more about mourning cloaks at Butterflies and Moths of North America, a great identification resource with tons of photos.