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Monarchs on the March


You can scold me if you like, but I'm not planning to change my ways. Despite my local weed ordinance and the possibility that my neighbors will give me the stink-eye, I always allow a few patches of "weeds" to thrive around the edges of my vegetable garden. I do it for the butterflies just passing through, and it has really paid off.

This season I noticed quite a few monarch butterfly caterpillars, and I even stumbled upon an amazing green chrysalis, dotted with telltale gold. It looked as if someone had gilded the thing, but, no, I understand those gold splotches have something to do with cardenolides found in the milkweed plants that monarch butterfly caterpillars like to eat. I say that's reason enough to keep growing both common and swamp milkweed, along with other native perennials that butterflies, assorted beneficial insects, and my honey bees find irresistible.

With the arrival of fall, any monarchs I spot now are at the back of the pack, winging their way to Mexico for the winter. From the look of things, I might do well to take more pictures now, since fewer and fewer monarchs may be making the trip in the coming years. A general loss of forage and habitat here coupled with so much illegal logging in their overwintering grounds in Mexico are to blame, and David Wilcove's new book, No Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations, suggests it's not just the monarchs we should be worried about. Wilcove notes that the going's gotten tougher for mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, shorebirds and songbirds, loggerhead turtles, and many other species. "We need to protect species while they are still common," the Princeton University professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and public affairs says.

He continues, "As more and more species face difficulty completing their annual pilgrimages between breeding and wintering grounds, we will continue to see declines in animals that were once a familiar part of our local landscapes. History suggests that once a great migration is destroyed, there is little prospect of recreating it." Indeed.