Remembering the monarch butterfly and northern bobwhite

I got to thinking today about how common monarch butterflies were in my neighborhood when I was growing up (many years ago!) in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Back then, monarchs were as common as tiger swallowtails are today. I would sneak up on these orange and black beauties and gently catch their wings between my thumb and forefinger, and keep them just long enough to admire their exquisite markings and study their body parts before letting them go.

Today, monarch numbers are declining rapidly, largely due to loss of habitat (as our country grows in population) and use of pesticides for agriculture and our zeal to keep our lawns weed-free. When we moved to southwestern Virginia in 2011, I watched dozens flying south in September on their way to their wintering ground in Mexico. Every year since then, I have seen fewer and fewer monarchs. Last year, I saw only three monarchs on the farm all summer and the fall migration was barely noticeable.

Monarch on purple ironweed

Same with the northern bobwhite. There was an abandoned orchard next to our old subdivision that had become overgrown with tall grass and wildflowers where we regularly heard their whistled bob-white calls. They foraged in groups and we would see them scurrying between cover or bursting into flight if they happened to see us. Like the monarchs, bobwhites have been in sharp decline throughout the past half-century due to habitat loss and changes in agriculture. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, bobwhites have declined 85% between 1966 and 2014.

Male northern bobwhite

Bill and I made the decision when we moved to our farm to create more habitat for wildlife. We only mow around the house, and in six years, the fields that were once cow pasture have grown up into shrubs and young trees, creating a diversity of habitat and more cover and food for wildlife.

I guess our 20 acres is a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed to help these declining species. We’re doing what we can, but what I wouldn’t give to see monarchs on the wildflowers or hear the cheery song of the bobwhites once again.

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