Fluttering for the border

Oak Park-born butterfly discovered in central Mexico

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Earlier this year — on Feb. 21, to be precise — the Oak Park Board of Trustees approved a resolution declaring Monarch Pledge Day, an effort advanced by the National Wildlife Federation to bring attention to the endangered insect.

The pledge encourages residents of Oak Park to plant milkweed and nectar plants for the monarchs, which have declined in population over the last several decades.

The very next day, a monarch butterfly, born and raised in the 500 block of South Elmwood Avenue in Oak Park, was discovered more than 2,000 miles away in Cerro Pelon, Mexico.

Neither Judy Fitchett, the woman who raised and released the monarch, nor her neighbor, Stacy Fifer, who helped tag the butterfly, had any idea either event had taken place. 

Fitchett, who lives on Elmwood a few houses down from her friend and fellow monarch enthusiast, said she's raised and released roughly 50 monarch butterflies from her home over the last five years, but the summer of 2016 was a tough one.

"I was surprised [the butterfly was discovered] because I had a terrible time raising monarchs last year," she said, noting that she only successfully raised and released a couple of the insects that year.

Though Fitchett and Fifer had nothing to do with the monarch pledge, they're working toward the same goal as the National Wildlife Federation in helping the endangered insect recover. 

For years the two friends have been planting milkweed and other plants desirable to monarchs in their yards in an effort to give the insects a habitat to eat and lay their eggs.

It doesn't stop with the makeshift monarch hotels though; Fitchett and Fifer harvest the eggs and give them a safe place inside their homes to grow into caterpillars, and eventually monarchs, before they are released for their long journey to Mexico.

Fifer said in a recent interview that 90 percent of the eggs, which are almost too small to be seen by the untrained eye, will be eaten by predator insects such as milkweed beetles if they are not protected. 

"The egg is really small; that was the biggest challenge when I first started was being able to identify the eggs," Fifer said.

She first learned of the technique a few years back from Fitchett, who would let the caterpillars reach the stage of chrysalis — where caterpillars transform into butterflies — and give them out to neighborhood kids to release.

Fifer said she was fascinated to learn of the long migration and how monarchs have come close to being an endangered species. 

"The population has greatly declined, starting in the 1970s when farmers changed how they farmed the land and started taking over more and more of the ditches and sides of fields [where wild milkweed grows]," she said.

With Fitchett as a guide, Fifer and her daughter, Esme Conour, 10, began raising the monarchs in 2015. They didn't get their first big crop until last year, though, when they raised and released two dozen.

It was Fifer who began tagging the monarchs through a nonprofit group called Monarch Watch, which allows those who raise the insects to track their progress online. 

"The tags are made to be lightweight and very sticky, so you just put it on," said Fifer, who has raised 10 monarchs so far this year and currently has four caterpillars, one egg and three chrysalises. 

She said there are only a few people in town that she knows of who raise and release monarchs and noted that neither she nor Fitchett had anything to do with the Mayor's Monarch Pledge Day resolution. 

Fitchett and Fifer were both ecstatic to learn that one of their monarchs — known only on Monarch Watch's spreadsheet as WLM232 — was discovered in Cerro Pelon. That monarch was released from Oak Park on Aug. 31, 2016. 

It's impossible to know if the insect was found fluttering around, searching for a stem of milkweed to perch on, and Fitchett added she has no idea where it might have stopped along the way. But it was one of only two she was successful in raising last year.

"The generation that hatches out in mid-August or so are the ones that will survive about nine months [others, hatched earlier in the season, live shorter lives]," Fitchett said. "They are the ones that will migrate and make the trip to Mexico. Butterflies in this corridor of our country migrate down to Mexico. Over winter they'll come back up to the Texas area — the Gulf coast — they'll start another generation and actually their grandchildren will wind up coming back up here and the offspring from all of those in the fall will go right back to Mexico." 

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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Alan Albro from Oak Park  

Posted: July 20th, 2017 1:31 AM

Very cool.

Eileen Gull Kleps  

Posted: July 19th, 2017 4:48 PM

I have been raising monarchs indoors for about 15 years. I have found that swamp milkweed works well in attracting them and is not as invasive as the common milkweed. I currently have five caterpillars munching away and a few eggs waiting to hatch. I didn't know about the tagging. Maybe I will try it this year. Thanks for the story. I also raise black swallowtails just for the fun of it for my grandchildren. They lay their eggs on dill and parsley.

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