Birds and Butterflies
Birds & Butterflies
Plants aren't the only thing living in our gardens - they are also the home of birds, butterflies, and a host of other animals and insects. Learn about our friends and foes that share our yards and neighborhoods.
The Blue Jay
This common, large songbird is familiar to many people, with its perky crest; blue, white, gray, and black
plumage; and noisy calls. As with peacocks, blue jay feathers are actually brown, but appear blue because
of light interference from the feather structure. If the feather is crushed, the blue color disappears.
Blue Jays are known for their intelligence and complex social systems, and have tight family bonds. They often
mate for life, remaining with their social mate throughout the year. Only the female incubates; her mate
provides all her food during incubation.
Blue Jays can imitate calls of their predators, especially red-tailed hawks, and may use these calls to test whether
or not these predators are in the area. They will also occasionally use these calls to scare other birds away from
food sources like bird feeders.
There are four subspecies of blue jay: the northern blue jay, which live in Canada and the northern U.S. and
has fairly dull plumage and pale blue coloration; the coastal blue jay, which lives on the southern coast of the
eastern United States and is vivid blue; the interior blue jay, which lives throughout the midwest U.S.; and the
Florida blue jay, the smallest subspecies, which is similar in color to the northern blue jay.
Blue jays have very strong black bills, which can crack nuts and acorns. They will eat almost anything, but
especially like to eat corn, grains, berries, seeds, insects, and peanuts.
Blue Jays carry food in their throat and upper esophagus—an area often called a “gular pouch.” They may
store 2-3 acorns in the pouch, another one in their mouth, and one more in the tip of the bill. In this way they
can carry off 5 acorns at a time to store for later feeding. Six birds with radio transmitters each cached
3,000-5,000 acorns one autumn. Their fondness for acorns and their accuracy in selecting and burying acorns
that have not been infested with weevils are credited with spreading oak trees after the last glacial period. They
may not have the most beautiful song, but they play an important role in our ecosystem.
Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology Submitted by Julie Jansen
The Mourning Cloak Butterfly
By Jill Staake
Some folks still have snow on the ground, but others are starting too see signs of spring. A friend of mine in
Washington DC commented on Facebook that his daffodils are blooming, and recent reports say ruby-throated
hummingbirds and monarch butterflies are on the way north once again. In many parts of the country, one of the
first signs of spring is the return to the sky of Mourning Cloak butterflies.
Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) can be seen in most parts of the country, with the exception of southern
Florida. They are a medium-sized butterfly, with a wingspan of about 3 inches. They are easy to identify, with
velvety-brown wings bordered in white or yellow, edged with bright blue spots. Mourning Cloaks are one of the
first butterflies to be spotted each spring because most do not fly south when the weather gets cold – instead, they
overwinter as adult butterflies tucked away in sheltered places like cracks in rocks or holes in trees. They are able
to shut down their bodies all winter long,
experiencing a type of hibernation that is
known in insects as torpor. When the weather
begins to warm up, these butterflies awake and
head out to find water and food.
Because these butterflies often emerge in early
spring before much in the way of flowers and
nectar are available, Mourning Cloaks have
evolved to take advantage of other food
sources. In early spring, these butterflies are
found sipping running sap from tree trunks on
sunny afternoons, head down and walking
downward. Later in the season, they will very occasionally visit flowers for nectar, but are often seen enjoying
rotting fruit, their second favorite food.
How can you attract a butterfly to your garden if it rarely visits nectar flowers? One good place to start is by
planting their host plants instead. Mourning Cloak butterflies lay eggs on trees in the willow family, and also on
elm and birch. Look for their caterpillars in late spring and early summer. You can also attract the butterflies with
very ripe or rotting fruit set in a dish in your garden, like bananas and strawberries. (Set the fruit in a shallow dish
of water to deter ants.)