The Mourning Cloak is one of the most interesting butterflies in North America. It is a nonconformist in every way. Is it colorful and pretty? Not really; in fact, in the resting pose with wings folded, it is downright ugly.
Mourning Cloak on a deer carcass in late summer
Does it flit about in the heat of the summer, following the bloom and nectaring? No. It’s dormant then (estivating), preferring to feed on tree sap in the spring and again in late summer and fall. Is it a specialist, relying on a few plant species with limited range for survival? No. On the contrary, it’s a generalist, occurring throughout temperate North America, and Eurasia too. The caterpillars feed on a variety of plants that are widely distributed and abundant, especially in riparian habitats – willows, aspens, cottonwoods, and elm for example.
Lastly, this unique butterfly actually hibernates, emerging in March and April, when the sap flows, to breed.
The spread wings, dark and velvety, resemble a cloak worn at a time of mourning, hence the common name. In this case, they have a dual purpose: attract a mate, and absorb solar radiation for warmth.
Mourning Cloak butterfly perched in a sunny spot on the forest floor, waiting – hoping – for a receptive female (24April2014)
Photos by NB Hunter. All Rights Reserved.