Among the Monarchs of Canada

Canada is home to a sliver of the world’s population and a disproportionately large number of monarch butterfly enthusiasts. Now I understand why: when we visited in the first week of September, the monarchs were delightfully ubiquitous, flitting by or frolicking about wherever we found ourselves. They kept catching in my peripheral vision, wings pumping to take them above freeway traffic or across the expanse of a Great Lake.

When the monarchs reach central Mexico in November, they’re a bit faded. By March, when they’re preparing to fly north, their wings are nearly translucent. But these late summer monarchs boasted deep red-orange wings and nectar-plump abdomens. It was heartening to see so many healthy specimens.

Ontario is Fred Urquhart country. Urquhart was the Canadian biologist who made it his life’s mission to find out where Ontario’s monarchs went every winter. He and spouse Nora started a tagging program to track the monarchs. Tags are tiny stickers printed with a serial number attached to the underside of monarchs’ lower wings. In 1975, the recovery of a tag on Cerro Pelon in Mexico State confirmed the connection between Canada’s annual exodus and Mexico’s massive winter agglomerations.

I’ve met some who are skeptical about tagging — What else do we need to know now that we know where they go? they ask. Why burden an already imperiled creature?

Here’s what Monarch Watch, the non-profit that sells tags and collates their data has to say on the matter:

“Tagging helps answer questions about the origins of monarchs that reach Mexico, the timing and pace of the migration, mortality during the migration, and changes in geographic distribution. It also shows that the probability of reaching Mexico is related to geographic location, size of the butterfly, and the date (particularly as this relates to the migration window for a given location).”

There’s another reason for tagging I’ve heard people give that goes like this: The market for recovered tags improves economic conditions around the sanctuaries in Mexico. Monarch Watch Conservation Specialists visit once a year and buy up all the tags collected since the previous year. They pay around $5 per tag, the equivalent to Mexico’s daily minimum wage. However, only a small percentage of tags are ever recovered. And only a handful of people, usually guides and rangers, get the chance to sift through the piles of dead monarchs that accumulate under their trees in search of tags.

Thinking that buying back tags makes much of a difference is like believing that the Lotto can solve systemic poverty. People need steady incomes if we’re going to put a dent in the deforestation of the monarchs’ overwintering grounds. That’s why Joel and I started the non-profit Butterflies & Their People to hire four locals to do full-time forest protection in the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary. Happily, a lot of support for this project has come from individuals in Canada.

Before our trip to Canada, I had an unarticulated opinion about tagging that lay closer to that of the curmudgeons I’ve heard haranguing hapless Monarch Watch conservation specialists while seated together on my sofa in Mexico— why are you bothering that poor little butterfly with that cumbersome sticker? Maybe recovery rates are so low here because these branded monarchs just don’t make it.

But that was before I had the chance to release tagged butterflies. Now I get it. It’s exciting. You’re holding hope in your hand. A tremulous twitch of the wings between your fingers, then the tickle of feet on your hand before the sudden take off. It’s a little message in a bottle. In this case, a message that someone we know might just find on our mountain. Evidence that this creature the weight of a paper clip connects the flat green vistas of efficient roadways to our far more chaotic, conifer-covered outcroppings.

Joel Moreno and Ellen Sharp releasing tagged butterflies in Presqu’ile Park, Ontario.

We started off in Presqu’ile Park, where we met Canada’s most prolific tagger, Don Davis. (Don is on the board of the Monarch Butterfly Fund, which provided our non-profit Butterflies and Their People with its first year of funding). We also ran into Monica Taylor signing copies of her two-in-one picture book The Monarch Butterfly and The Cecropia Moth.

From there we headed to Point Pelee, where we arrived just in time to encounter Darlene Burgess doing her evening count of the butterfly roosts. Point Pelee is the southernmost point of Canada, where the monarchs often cluster while waiting for favorable winds to carry them over Lake Erie. Visiting Point Pelee can be a hit or miss experience; the day before we arrived (Sept 4), Darlene counted more than 4,000 monarchs. The Sept 5th count: 23.

The following day a park employee gave a presentation on monarch biology to a standing-room-only crowd at the visitor center. A triple-articulated shuttle ferried visitors back and forth to the point where Darlene conducted that evening’s count. There were a handful of clusters in some of the trees, but then word came in from Darlene’s monarch network that that there were many more clustered in trees in Sea Cliff Park in Leamington, the town just north of the park.

While they’re weren’t so many butterflies in Point Pelee itself that day, a lot of butterfly enthusiasts from all over the area came out — including Barb Hacking, author of When a Butterfly Speaks, Steve Sugrim, who’s working on a microchip butterfly tagging project, Bruce Parker of the Hawk Cliff count and tagging project, pollinator gardening enthusiast Louie Fiorino, and accomplished amateur nature photographer Sabrina Dao.

The next day, we drove across the province to Peterborough to catch up with Carlotta James and Rodney Fuentes of the Monarch Ultra shortly before they kicked off their 4,300 km relay run from Ontario to the Cerro Pelón Sanctuary. We talked about all the barriers humans face trying to traverse the borders monarchs cross so effortlessly, including bans on the free movement of rental cars and donations to non-profits across borders.

We spent our last afternoon in Ontario in the Rosetta McClain gardens, a beautifully landscaped area on the edge of a cliff bursting with butterfly bush and Joe Pye weed, a buffet that tagger Terry Whittam calls, “McDonalds for the monarchs.” There they were, fueling up in great numbers. A line formed around volunteer tagger Betty McCulloch, who sat on a bench next to a a net full of freshly captured monarchs. She pulled them out one at a time, rating their coloring and weighing them in a cardboard tube on a tiny scale while a fellow volunteer recorded these numbers on a clipboard. Her fans included two tiny blonde siblings, who kept hopping back in the line to release more tagged monarchs.

 

It strikes me that discussion of tagging butterflies is somewhat comparable to arguments about home-rearing monarchs. This activity in and of itself is not going to save the migration. But the joy of first-hand contact with a natural wonder serves an important purpose by enlisting more allies in monarch conservation.

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