Be Your Own Birder

When Birds Turn Into Butterflies

From mid-summer to late summer isn’t the best time for birding, but it is a great time to turn to other winged beauties – the butterflies! Birds and butterflies actually have more in common for birders that you may realize, and seeing either one can be rewarding and enjoyable throughout the hottest weeks of summer.

Silver-Washed Fritillary - Photo by Peter Weemeeuw
Silver-Washed Fritillary – Photo by Peter Weemeeuw

About Butterflies

Western Pygmy Blue - Photo by Renee Grayson
Western Pygmy Blue – Photo by Renee Grayson

Butterflies are colorful, winged insects in the order Lepidoptera (along with moths), with a distinct fluttering flight, and generally a four-stage life cycle (egg, larva/caterpillar, pupa, adult) that may last just a few months or could take several years to complete.

Butterflies have been found as fossils as far back as the Paleocene era roughly 56 million years ago, and today, there are approximately 17,500 butterfly species around the world. The largest butterfly is the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, found in New Guinea, with a wingspan of 10-11 inches (larger than many birds!), while the smallest is the western pygmy blue butterfly, with a wingspan of just a half inch. These tiny flutterers can be found in the southwestern United States, into Mexico, and as far south as Venezuela.

What Birds and Butterflies Share

Birds and butterflies have a great deal in common from a birding or birdwatching perspective. Both birds and butterflies…

  • Fly – Okay, this is obvious, though the flight style and endurance differs greatly, with birds being generally superior fliers (except for the flightless birds such as kiwis or penguins).
  • Sport Bright Colors – While butterflies have colorful wings and duller bodies, birds are more apt to have brighter colors on the face, breast, or body, though some birds do have colorful wing patches.
  • May Migrate – While not all birds migrate, neither do all butterflies, but some species of both do undertake significant seasonal journeys.
  • Sip Nectar – Adult butterflies almost universally feed on floral nectar, just like hummingbirds, and in fact both hummingbirds and butterflies often visit the same flowers.
  • May Be Sexually Dimorphic – Just like many birds look different whether they are male or female, many butterflies are also dimorphic and may have differences in size, color, or wing patterns based on sex.
  • Face Similar Threats – Overuse of pesticides and herbicides, loss of habitat, weather extremes, invasive pests, foreign plants, and other threats impact both birds and butterflies.
  • Fascinate Birders – Many birders turn to butterflies in the summer, when birds are nesting or molting and may not be as active in the heat. Butterflies are perfectly active at this time, flitting between blooms and ready for identification, listing, chasing, and more!

Attract Butterflies to Attract More Birds

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail - Photo by khteWisconsin
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail – Photo by khteWisconsin

Because butterflies and birds share so many traits, many techniques that help bring more birds to the yard will also attract more butterflies and vice versa. Both birds and butterflies need, appreciate, and enjoy native plants, but for butterflies, choose both host plants that will feed caterpillars as well as nectar plants that will feed adult butterflies. Nectar plants are also many of the flowers hummingbirds love, and thus will easily attract both birds and butterflies!

Thicket-like shelter is also good for both butterflies and birds. Shady spots provide safe spaces to rest or to retreat from summer rainstorms, and deep cover can help protect birds and butterflies from predators. Thickets and dense plantings also provide better shelter for caterpillars so they can safely transform into adult butterflies.

Water is essential for both birds and butterflies, particularly in summer when puddles dry quickly and droughts may spread. Butterflies cannot use deeper bird baths, but will perch on the edge of a basin or in any shallow spot, such as if a few rocks are added to a basin. Be sure the tops of the rocks are just breaking the water’s surface to give butterflies safe access for drinking, and many smaller birds will also appreciate the safe, easy sips. A butterfly puddler – a basin filled with damp sand – is another option for attracting butterflies and offering them a safe place to drink.

Butterflies will even visit feeding stations, just as birds will. While butterflies don’t eat seed, they will sip from nectar feeders, often the same feeders that may be offered to hummingbirds or orioles. Putting orange or banana slices in a shallow dish is also a great way to attract butterflies, or you can spread butterfly mash – a mixture of mushy banana, sugar, flat beer, or other ingredients – on a branch or log to feed butterflies. Many birds will also sample the treat or may feast on insects drawn to the fruit.

Butterfly on a Hummingbird Feeder - Photo by likeaduck
Butterfly on a Hummingbird Feeder – Photo by likeaduck

Having a yard that is friendly to butterflies is one that will also be friendly to birds, and soon you’ll be enjoying both!

When Birds Eat Butterflies

Once you start attracting butterflies to your bird-friendly yard, you’ll start to notice how the two types of fliers may interact. While hummingbirds aren’t usually fussy about sharing a feeder or flower with a butterfly or two, a large group of butterflies may intimidate a hummingbird, so it can be a good idea to have several feeders to ensure every guest can find a comfortable place to sip. It is other birds, however, that may look at butterflies not as neighbors at the feeder, but as appetizing morsels themselves.

Many different birds eat insects, and yes, they will eat insects as large as butterflies. Jays, orioles, warblers, thrushes, grosbeaks, flycatchers, tanagers, mockingbirds, roadrunners, and crossbills will all eat just about any butterfly they can catch. Even small birds of prey such as kestrels will snack on butterflies occasionally, and many birds will eat larvae and caterpillars before the butterflies have the opportunity to mature.

Of course, adult butterflies – with their fluttering flight – aren’t always easy to catch. Some butterflies have also evolved horrible tastes that deter predators, and their colorful markings are often a warning of disgusting toxins to discourage predators, while other markings can help camouflage both adult butterflies as well as caterpillars. Just like any wild kingdom action in the yard, however, it is important to realize that birds and butterflies both need to eat, and occasionally, their dietary patterns will intersect not just at nectar-bearing flowers they may share, but as predators and prey.

Enjoy the Beauty

Just when birds aren’t quite so present in my hot summer yard, I’m able to enjoy the flittings of zebra longwings, swallowtails, and a kaleidoscope of other butterflies (yes, kaleidoscope is the name of a group of butterflies!). What butterflies do you see in your yard, and do you take special steps to attract them? Share your butterfly ambitions in the comments below!

Zebra Longwing - Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren
Zebra Longwing – Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

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