The Mourning Cloak Butterfly
My kids and I love to search for butterflies, or more specifically the eggs and caterpillars, so that we can "raise" them and watch the amazing transformations. True, you can just buy a kit, but we find something very satisfying about finding them ourselves, not to mention that you learn so much more—like where and when to find them, as well as what their natural behaviors might be. I'd like to share some of these observations so that maybe you or your kids might enjoy and learn as well.
The Mourning Cloak Butterfly
The mourning cloak or Species: Antiopa (Family: Brushfoot, Sub-fam: Nymphalinae, Genius: Nymphalis) has one of the longest lifespans of all butterflies, as it estivates (a period of dormancy during the summer) and also hibernates all winter in the adult phase. This is uncommon for butterflies. Most overwinter as an egg or pupa (such as the Swallowtails) or they migrate as adults (like the Monarch.) Just imagine this seemingly fragile creature surviving temperatures of -35°F and colder while just huddled in the crack of a tree branch!
The Butterfly Life Cycle
Often, adults spotted in the spring will have tattered wings from their long winter experience. In the early spring, the adults will emerge to mate and lay eggs. The females will lay the eggs on the caterpillers' favorite host plants: Willow, Aspen and Cottonwood.
It's really fun, especially with kids, to find the females laying eggs on these host plants; look in moist areas such as river valleys or wet meadows. Don't look too early in the season because the females may not have mated yet. Wait until the leaves on the host trees are mature.
You can tell a female from a male usually by the way they are acting. The females are shy and less active than the males. The males are more aggressive and may be "hassling" the females. Also if a butterfly is "puddling," or drinking from shallow puddles, this is almost always a male.
The female will usually lay clutches of eggs at the base of a tree branch. To collect the eggs, you can use a small paintbrush and brush them into a Tupperware container with a lid (and a few small holes for air.)
Raising the Hungry Caterpillar
As soon as they hatch, move them with your paintbrush (they will be very tiny) to a cut branch of the host plant. Keep the cut end of the branch in a bottle of water and wrap foil or plastic-wrap around the neck of the bottle so that the caterpillars can't get into the water and drown.
I keep the whole thing, plant, bottle, caterpillar and all, in an old aquarium. You could also use a screened cage or even make a container out of a net or nylon. Then again, there are some great websites where a pop-up enclosure can be purchased for relatively inexpensively.
Your tiny caterpillar is in it's first stage or "instar" and is not likely to try to go anywhere. They just eat and grow and make "frass" (caterpillar poo) and then eat some more.
The mourning cloak, like most caterpillars, has 5 stages or "instars," growing bigger and shedding their outer skin with each one. The entire larval stage is about 2-3 weeks (depending on the weather and food availability.)
If you miss the chance to collect them as eggs, then just look for the caterpillars. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars will stay together in groups feeding on the favorite host plants (Willow, Aspen and Cottonwood) until they are close to pupating. (Because of this "social" behavior, people often confuse them with the larva of Gypsy moths or Tent worms which are fuzzy with red spots and cluster together similarly.)
When they have reached the fifth and final instar, they set out individually in search of a good location to make their chrysalis.
Mourning Cloak Caterpillar
The Caterpillar Pupates
Just FYI, if you find a caterpillar crawling on anything other than its host plant -- your house, the driveway, the sidewalk, etc. -- chances are good that it is in ,what I call "the wandering stage." Most caterpillars do this just before pupating. (They are otherwise fairly sedentary creatures.) They will suddenly become very active and, if you have them at home, they will make trip after trip around the inside of their enclosure. Once they have started this behavior, they will usually pupate within 24-48 hours.
They need a safe place where they can hang upside-down. They will assume what I call the "prayer position," which looks like this:
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The caterpillars will hang from a stick or even just the top of a jar. I usually move them into a glass jar (like a mason or canning jar) and cover the jar with a paper towel. Then I secure it with a rubber band. They almost always choose the paper to hang from. Don't worry about trying to feed them in this stage, they won't eat.
Try not to disturb them once they are "praying." But, if at all possible, don't miss the actual transformation. It only takes a minute or two and is incredible. If you notice them sort of pulsing, it's going to happen soon!
The Mourning Cloak Chrysalis
The Beautiful Butterfly Emerges
In early August (in Montana), the mourning cloak caterpillars will pupate. If you have given yours a stick or paper to hang from, then it's easy to move them back into the larger container after the chrysalis has had several hours to harden. Maybe even wait a day or so -- you have plenty of time. Then, just pin the paper or stick to the inside of the enclosure.
It is important that they have plenty of room when they "eclose" or emerge. If they are crowded, the result will be misshapen wings. After 10-14 days, the beautiful adult will emerge.
Hopefully, you will get to witness this wonder! A crumpled damp adult will pull itself out of the chrysalis shell and begin to pump its wings, bigger and bigger, until they are fully formed, then they will dry.
Don't be alarmed if your butterfly has some bright red or orange discharge; it is not bleeding. It is just the left over pigment they don't need.
The Adult Mourning Cloak Butterfly
The underside of the mourning cloak's wings are brown with a cream colored band along the irregular edges. The tops of the wings are more colorful with yellow, blue and purple.
Adult mourning cloak butterflies have some strange eating habits. They enjoy rotten fruit, tree sap, and even animal droppings.
The mourning cloak is the Montana State butterfly.
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I Welcome Comments and Questions!
Nancy Downs on January 26, 2020:
I live in northern San Diego County in California. Last late summer, when I would go to my mailbox....I am out in a rural area in a huge garden and chapparel setting...I would be 'greeted' by a Mourning Cloak butterfly. It would come close by and hover, fly a bit away, and then return right to me...over and over again. Thought it was a one-time event, but it happened every day at the same time for weeks. And then it was gone. Months have gone by and I had forgotten until yesterday, January 25, when, to my great surprise and pleasure, the butterfly greeted me again in the exact same manner. Could it be the the same butterfly, and what would be the reason for its very personal attention to me? Oh, how I do enjoy meeting him/her and hope that our relationship continues. I will so welcome your insight.
Deborah Agre on July 08, 2019:
I found a Mourning Cloak caterpillar and put it in a jar after I noticed it not moving as much. It had been crawling up & down our wall for awhile. When I got it in the jar it hung upside down but didn't form its cocoon (i guess the chrysalis form). It is in the praying position though. What happened and is there anymore I can do?
Tracy Blecha on July 03, 2019:
I have a mourning cloak that canoe out of the chrysalis and is deformed. It’s wings are messed up. How can I feed her to keep her alive? I can’t see the probocsis at all
Kass on June 27, 2019:
Quick question. I found 3 mourning cloak catterpillers and 2 went into chrysalis i was just wondering if a 1 gallon ice cream bucket is big enough to move them to
Jmewalker2 on June 26, 2019:
I have a mourning cloak butterfly in a chrysalis that it just made today. I don’t think I want it around. Although amazing I came to realize the caterpillar stage is venomous. I have a 4 year old boy that wants to eat bugs sometimes so I don’t want it to reproduce here
Bonnie on May 30, 2019:
Mourning cloaks used to be all over this area (Riverside, Can) but it is very rare to see these beauties now. I have pons and fountains for the local wildlife and plan to plant pussy willows around the ponds. I would love a resource for purchasing mourning cloak larvae. As a retired teacher I know scientific supply companies used to have them but I can't find anything except painted ladies. Have you any ideas?
Anonumous on June 13, 2018:
I was only wondering how long it stayed in it's cocoon thing. Cool fact: when inside a cocoon, a caterpillar completely turns into go, then reforms. Hope you didn't just have lunch!
Danielle on August 20, 2016:
Hi, I have a mourning cloak at my house and it's been about a month or 2 since it has gone into its chrysalis and it hasn't hatched yet. So my question is:Is my mourning cloak still alive?
Lilac on June 19, 2016:
Hi, I just found two mourning cloak caterpillars and they were on our pool fence. They've been crawling around the cage but I'm not sure if they're going to pupate or not. I wanted to know how big you think the cage should be because the one they're in is about 6" by 4". I recently whitnessed a giant silk moth hatch from a chrysalis, it was kept in there but I let him out when I was home watching him. Sadly he was a male but we let him go the next day.
Jenna on May 27, 2016:
I found a mourning cloak wandering around the basketball courts of an elementary school, I didn't have elm or willow or any of the leaves they feed on (neither did school I found it at) and I had to work so I figured I'd look for some on my way home from work, this morninh It's now hanging upside down so I thought that maybe it was bringing to crysalize but instead of being in a "J" shape, he's more in a curled up position
Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on March 24, 2015:
I would just wait and watch, it may be okay.
A Llama on March 15, 2015:
I just got a wandering mourning cloak that I picked up and put in a plastic tub thing and waited but it became a chrysalis on its side so it is unformed with a small part of the chrysalis. I supposed the body because it is a deep brown near the stem ish area of the chrysalis but it is forming still just there is no chrysalis over that small area. The area is about a centimeter long and a millimeter two wide. So will it survive or die? Or will it just survive and be a bit deformed I don't really know.
Megan on July 23, 2013:
hello me my mom and sister just started our own business,we started off with just painted ladies and now my mom is doing them but me and my sister wanted to do something different so we all have our own thing i am wanting to do mourning cloaks and my sister is wanting to do red admirals but we don't know where to get eggs or chrysalis's at does anyone know where we could get some please type me back
thank you have a great day
Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on August 08, 2011:
Check out this link:
Dr Fink will show you how to feed your butterfly!
FDG on August 08, 2011:
My female butterfly won't eat. What should I do?
Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on June 17, 2011:
Well, that depends on what type of butterfly you have and what time of year it is. Assuming you have a caterpillar now, in June, I would guess-timate 10 days to 2 weeks as a caterpillar and 10 days to 2 weeks in the chrysalis. Then wha-la, you should have a butterfly.
the old curio shop on June 12, 2011:
How long will my caterpillar take to turn into a butterfly?