Becoming A Wildlife Steward

Helping Wildlife In Small And Big Ways

Posted on: October 29th, 2020

Sheltering-in-Place Blog Entry #29

A dear friend of mine lived with her young son in an apartment building in San Diego. They have spent as much time as possible in nature during the pandemic, visiting the many beautiful parks and natural landscapes in the region. They were not allowed to have pets in their apartment, but they needed to find a way to express their love for animals in their home. So they turned their small balcony into a friendly space for birds. Their bird feeder attracted mourning doves and finches, which they observed and photographed regularly. They also had a hummingbird feeder that was routinely visited.

Caterpillars collected on milkweed leaves. Photo © S. Jijon.
Monarch butterfly egg on a milkweed leaf.

One afternoon as they were leaving their apartment compound on their way to the post office, they saw something strange. A lone, fat caterpillar crawling on the sidewalk. My friend, a biologist, recognized it immediately as a monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus, family Nymphalidae). They looked around, wondering where it could have come from since they could not see any plants nearby, especially milkweeds. Milkweeds are hosts for monarch butterflies whose larvae feed on the toxic leaves and sap, making the insects distasteful to predators (there’s a great story there for another time). There are 15 species of milkweeds in California, and every region of the state has a most common one well adapted to the climate of the region. My friend wondered if the caterpillar had been caught by a bird that dropped it on the street after realizing that its diet of milkweed leaves made it not only distasteful but toxic as well.

A simple home nursery for raising monarch caterpillars. Photo © S. Jijon.

They decided to follow the caterpillar to see where it would go. Soon, it became clear: a patch of freshly planted native plants including sage, manzanitas, lupines, yarrow, and others that the landscaper had planted to attract bees and butterflies. And sure enough, there were milkweeds full of caterpillars of various sizes. They decided to take home a few leaves with small caterpillars to watch them grow. They clipped a few leaves, being careful not to dislodge the tiny caterpillars or get the white and sticky sap on their hands. Once at home, they set up a plastic salad container as a safe nursery for the caterpillars. They poked holes on the lid from which they hung individual leaves and watched as the caterpillars worked their way up and down the leaves munching away until only the stems were left. They would collect fresh leaves every other day, having found a few more plants around the compound to replenish the food source. They washed the leaves before presenting them to the caterpillars, which grew and grew.

Raising caterpillars at home can be a wonderful exploration project for families. Photo © S. Jijon.

As the caterpillars developed, my friend and her son made observations, took photos, read about them on the Internet, and learned a lot about their incredible life history, migrations, and conservation challenges. A few milkweed leaves and a bunch of caterpillars created a world of exploration and connections involving natural history, evolution, behavior, metamorphosis, geography, food webs, predation and protection from predators, and much more. They also expanded their sense of stewardship, a desire to care for something wild, and contribute to its survival. The milkweed and the monarch butterflies became a living encyclopedia in their small apartment, a daily source of activity, learning, and wonder.

Monarch chrysalis in various stages of development including a recently vacated shell. Photo © S. Jijon.

Eventually, the magic happened. One of the caterpillars started to spin some silk on the container lid and, in a few hours, transformed into a bright green chrysalis, leaving behind a black, wrinkled, and discarded skin at the bottom of the container among the frass (the technical name for caterpillar poop). Over the next few days, the chrysalis and the others that followed changed colors, darkening slowly, as orange shapes, black lines, and dots appeared through the glass-like outer shell. And one morning, a bright orange monarch butterfly hung from the open chrysalis, wings expanded, delicate and colorful, opening and closing its wings while it dried.

Newly emerged monarchs rest while drying their wings. Photo © S. Jijon.

If you have a backyard or a small garden, planting native plants, milkweeds, and other local flora can help you create a wildlife-friendly area within an urban environment. This will help pollinators such as native bees, butterflies, and other small wildlife find food and shelter and maintain healthy populations. If you add hummingbird and seed feeders along with small pools of clean water, you can attract several bird species and create friendly mini environments for frogs, bees, lizards, and other small wildlife.

Another fun project that anyone can do is to build “bee hotels.” There are over a thousand species of native bees in California. Many of them live solitary lives (in contrast to communal or hive nesting, like honeybees, which are not native to the US), and use small cavities to raise their young, such as hollow sticks, reeds, holes in dry wood, or holes in trees. There are many bee hotel designs available on the web. In the further reading section below, you can find some examples and designs.

Moments of wonder and delight at witnessing the miracle of life. Photo © S. Jijon.

Our urban and semi-urban neighborhoods can be deserts of asphalt, concrete, metal, glass, lawns, and decks that are unsuitable for wildlife. They can also be small oases of food and shelter for wild animals moving from one wild place to another. I’m not talking about turning your backyard or your neighborhood into a rough, unruly place. I’m promoting softening the inhospitable footprint that we often create to meet our everyday needs. It is our choice to invite and be friendly to some of the wild creatures that used to live in our neighborhoods before we modified them or to try to exclude them. There is beauty in nature and bringing it into your everyday life will benefit you and wildlife.

Stay tuned for upcoming exhibits and programs on East Bay pollinators, native plant gardens, and more.

Dr. Carlos de la Rosa
Executive Director

Acknowledgment: I want to thank Steffanie Jijon and her son Mnium for sharing their wonderful experiences, photos, and excitement about their monarch butterfly adventure.

 

 

 

Milkweed seeds are wind-dispersed. Milkweeds also support populations of tiny yellow aphids.
The lovely moment when home-raised monarchs get released. Photo © S. Jijón.

Further Reading

  Milkweeds and Monarchs in California

  Bee hotels

  Gardening for Wildlife publication

  Pollinator gardens

  Wildlife friendly gardens for the East Bay

Image of a bee hotel (more like a bee mansion!) from one of the further reading references.

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