Looking Out for Winged Wonders: Butterflies in the Fox Valley

The Monarch isn’t the only backyard butterfly to make its home here. Look at other species you’re likely to find here, and learn how citizen scientists are doing their part to support our butterflies.


Have you checked for Gray Hairstreaks lately? Discovered an American Snout? A Dainty Sulphur? Little Wood Satyr? How long has it been since you enjoyed a Wild Indigo Duskywing?

We all know and love the Monarch butterfly. The media has been saturated with alarming reports of its sharp decline and the many efforts to save this iconic species. But there are nearly 100 other butterfly species, too, in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, that are sought by researchers and citizen scientists who are gathering data to help save whole suites of organisms by restoring butterflies’ disappearing habitats.

How Are Butterflies Doing?

The Monarch butterfly population has recently declined to dangerously low levels, thus becoming the “poster child” for the plight of butterflies in general. Dr. Doug Taron, president of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network and curator of biology, vice president of conservation and research at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, believes the primary cause of butterfly population declines is habitat loss.

“If they don’t have a place to lay eggs, if they don’t have a place that offers the specific plants they need to eat, because those places have been developed or degraded, then they’re going to disappear,” says Taron.

Many of our region’s butterfly species depend on prairie plants. In the past 170 years, Illinois has lost all but one-hundredth of 1 percent of the 22 million acres of prairie that once covered the state.

Some northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin butterflies depend on plants that grow in intact woodland or wetland settings. Taron describes butterflies as barometers of ecosystem health because they’re so heavily dependent on our native plants.

“Butterflies are less resilient than many insect species because they must complete their whole life cycle within a year to reproduce,” he explains. “If conditions in one year at a particular location prevent them from completing their life cycle, they will disappear from that site.”

Butterflies’ dependence on specific plants is complicated further by the fact that many species need a particular type of plant for egg laying and caterpillar food, but also need different plants as food sources for the adults.

Mary Blackmore, a naturalist and member of Northwest Audubon based in Stephenson County, Ill., points out that our native butterfly species not only need flowers, but also grasses, fruit trees and other native trees that are increasingly scarce as prairie, wetland and woodland ecosystems decline. For example, the Little Woods Satyr needs forest grasses for larval food, and the adult feeds on sap and ripe fruit. And the Mourning Cloak larva eats the leaves of willow, birch and elm trees, but adults feed on over-ripe fruit, sap, carrion and some flowers.

In a diverse vegetation community, each plant and tree species attracts different insect species – some insects are generalists that move from one plant species to another; others are specialists that require specific plants to survive. The Monarch butterfly is among the specialists. Although it sips nectar from a range of plant species, its larvae eat only milkweed. With shifting land management practices, we’ve lost much milkweed from the landscape.

“To really help Monarchs and other butterflies, we need to do more than plant flowers in our gardens,” says Blackmore. “We need to protect and restore diverse native plant communities.”

What’s Being Done?

Taron agrees with Blackmore. “Just planting the native host plants of rare butterfly species in your yard is not going to accomplish much,” he says. “There are other factors that go into defining habitat for these species. Connectivity is needed. They need larger areas that afford all they need to survive.”

The exception is the Monarch. “The Monarch’s plight is happening with very different dynamics than other species,” Taron explains. “Planting milkweed in your yard really is going to be very helpful to Monarchs.”

There are many programs and campaigns that have sprung into existence in response to the Monarch’s global population plunge. Wild Ones, a national organization that promotes landscaping with native plants, has created a Wild For Monarchs campaign in partnership with Monarch Joint Venture and Monarch Watch. Rockford Resident Tim Lewis, national president of Wild Ones, describes Wild For Monarchs as a multi-faceted campaign designed to harness the power of 50 local chapters to educate and advocate for the Monarchs and the native plants that support them. Wild For Monarchs encourages homeowners to plant native milkweed and to save milkweed seed for Monarch Watch’s Milkweed Market. The Rock River Valley (RRV) chapter of Wild Ones, which serves north-central Illinois and southern Wisconsin, has made Wild For Monarchs one of its two main projects for 2015.

Janet Giesen, Wild Ones RRV member, has embraced the Wild For Monarchs recommendations and transformed her Sycamore yard into a butterfly haven. Over the past nine years, she has replaced much of the turf grass on her one-third-acre residential lot with several gardens filled with a variety of native plant species including forbs, grasses, sedges, shrubs and trees.

“Many of these plants provide nectar for Monarch butterflies and other insect pollinators,” explains Giesen. Common milkweed and other milkweed species that she intentionally planted attract female Monarchs; she has found them laden with eggs. Local residents interested in receiving training and educational information about aiding Monarchs can join the Wild Ones RRV Monarch email list at wildonesrrvc.org.

Beyond urging homeowners to create habitat by planting local milkweeds and native nectar plants, Wild Ones plans to launch a program to get members and the public involved in citizen science to monitor Monarch populations.

Citizen Scientists

Citizen science is a valuable part of butterfly conservation efforts.

“Citizen Science empowers people and gives them the opportunity to contribute directly to scientific research,” says Taron. The Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network (IBMN) is an award-winning citizen science program that assesses the long-term effects of ecosystem restoration activities on wildlife. The monitoring data collected by IBMN volunteers assists land managers in their efforts to achieve more-effective conservation of Illinois’ butterflies.

In his role as IBMN president, Taron travels throughout northern Illinois, helping to recruit and train new citizen scientists. In August 2014, he worked with staff at the Forest Preserves of Winnebago County (FPWC) to design a volunteer butterfly monitoring program to document species on forest preserve routes that he helped to map.

“I’m really pleased that FPWC decided to launch its citizen science program with the IBMN butterfly monitoring protocol,” says Taron. “We need more data from this county to find out what species these forest preserve natural areas are supporting. And it’s a really fun way for the public to get involved.”

IBMN now has 200 citizen scientists collecting quantitative data on butterfly populations at more than 100 sites throughout northern Illinois. “We’re generating tons of data,” says Taron. Land managers can extract data about their sites to learn how many species have been recorded and what the trends are. Taron provides an example: at Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve in Elgin, there are several wetland butterfly species, in particular, a little skipper called Black Dash.

“Data shows it has been very strong at Bluff Spring back to 1987, when habitat improvements began, so we know it is very compatible with the management strategy,” says Taron.

Big-Picture Solutions

Not all butterflies are trending in the same direction. Therefore, no single strategy will aid all local butterfly species. Some very precise restoration tactics must be implemented if we’re to avoid the loss of our more imperiled species.

“There are species that are adapted to human disturbance and suburban landscapes that are doing very well – Black Swallowtails, Eastern-tailed Blues, Common Sulfurs, Painted Ladies,” Taron says. “Those that have specialized habitat requirements are really struggling, such as the Regal Fritillary and Karner Blue.”

Butterflies that require native plants found in high-quality natural areas are called ‘remnant dependent species’ because they require rare native plants found mostly in intact prairie or wetland habitats. Taron’s research reveals that large-scale habitat restoration benefits some, but not all, butterfly species. “Specialist” butterflies need rare native plants for survival. Remnant-dependent species don’t spontaneously reappear, even after careful management improves a site’s conditions to the point that it again becomes suitable habitat.

The Regal Fritillary, for example, stays close to restricted remnants of natural habitat, but isn’t establishing itself in restored areas because the host plants it needs are very underrepresented in most restorations. Habitats that look like what Regal Fritillaries would enjoy are missing key components.

“If the host plant isn’t there, no matter what else you do, the conservative butterflies won’t be there,” Taron says. “Yet there are some species that I’m hoping will respond well to various habitat restoration efforts. At the very least, these restoration efforts will forestall further declines.”

Taron is most worried about species vulnerable to both habitat destruction and climate change, such as the Karner Blue, Silvery Blue and Silver-bordered Fritillary.

Taron sees a positive trend in public land management, as local forest preserves and conservation districts pay more attention to the plant species that some of these butterflies need. McHenry County Conservation District’s (MCCD) prairie, wetland and savanna restoration work has, for decades, included components related specifically to habitat-restricted butterfly species.

“Our restoration program includes a butterfly quality index developed more than 25 years ago that allows district biologists to track, through yearly surveys, how the overall mix of butterfly species on a monitored site is responding to management efforts,” says Ed Collins, MCCD director of land preservation and natural resources. In recent years, MCCD has changed the mix of its restoration seeds to produce a better food supply for habitat-restricted butterfly species.

Mike Groves, natural resource manager for FPWC, plans to use the data generated by a recently launched butterfly monitoring program to refine seed mixes and management practices to provide critically needed species of forbs and trees in restorations with the most potential to support struggling butterfly species.

There’s not a lot one can do to attract struggling species if they aren’t already present, but if they are present, maintaining and expanding their habitat should receive highest priority, says Taron. Groves says documentation of rare butterflies at remnant prairies and wetlands in the forest preserves will help to enhance protection measures for those sites.

“Discovery of a rare butterfly in an area gives us a strong case for acquiring and restoring buffer habitat to protect the butterflies and plants they need,” explains Groves. Expanding habitat adjacent to an existing butterfly population is a good strategy. “They will expand to the restored area, particularly wetland species, if you include the specific vegetation they need.”

Taron believes Illinois habitats are now so fragmented that existing butterfly populations can’t find restored sites. This has led him to practice captive breeding and restoration. Assisted reintroductions, or translocations, are a critical part of butterfly conservation, he says. Along with other biologists at the Peggy Notebaert Museum, Taron has been perfecting methods for breeding and rearing rare species for release in local remnant sites. In 2013, his team raised Swamp Metalmark butterflies from 80 eggs laid by four adults. After being tenderly reared and nurtured in paper cups in the lab, 20 adult Swamp Metalmarks were released at Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve, their last known home in Illinois, in September 2013. These tiny red-orange butterflies with black and white markings and lightly fringed wings have disappeared from Illinois, in recent decades, because of invasive plants and other encroachments into their habitat, which caused them to lose access to their preferred host flower, the swamp thistle.

Bluff Spring Fen was selected for the Swamp Metalmark’s reintroduction because substantial restoration efforts at the site, since the early 1980s, have cleared invasive brush overgrowing much of the Metalmark’s fen habitat. Its ecology much improved, the fen now contains a substantial population of swamp thistle. Volunteer butterfly monitors will comb Bluff Spring for Metalmarks this summer to verify the reintroduction’s success. He plans to attempt an additional lab rearing of Metalmarks in 2015.

While it seems that rare butterflies won’t automatically flock to a restored site, translocations, closely integrated with well-executed land management plans, put them in the few places they can still survive. As ecological restoration brings back more of these places in northern Illinois, butterfly restoration can be expected to thrive as well.