Out My Backdoor: Butterflies in Winter?

By Terry W. Johnson

Backyards that harbor an abundance of wildlife are indeed special places. Regardless of the time of the year, they provide homeowners with limitless opportunities to watch the coming and going of an amazing array of wildlife. If you have such a yard, you might even see a butterfly there in December. A few weeks ago I spotted one outside my backdoor.

As you recall, December proved to be unseasonably cold. When the temperatures dip this low, the chances of spotting a winter butterfly are slim. However, Dec. 31 proved to be cut from a different bolt of cloth. On this, the last day of 2010, we were treated to spectacular weather. The day was sunny, the thermometer soared into the 70s and it felt more like spring than winter.

My wife and I took this rare opportunity to explore our yard. As we slowly walked slowly around, it became immediately apparent that a buzz of activity was going on all around us. A single bloom adorning the otherwise barren branches of a forsythia bush growing near our barn caught our attention. Moving on we paused and watched chipping sparrows fussing with one another over white millet seeds at one of our bird feeders. Nearby, a feeder stocked with black oil sunflower seeds drew a steady stream of tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees. Within seconds of alighting on the feeder, each bird snatched a sunflower seed and flew to a nearby flowering dogwood festooned with bright red berries. There the birds chiseled open the seed’s hard coat and devoured the grayish white meat.

Off to our right we focused on a pair of bluebirds that were attacked by a mockingbird each time they tried to enter a log nesting structure. It was not that the mockingbird had problems with the birds using the nesting site; it simply didn’t want them close to the nearby berries.


Almost simultaneously, a dark butterfly winging its way toward the front yard caught our attention. While it was moving too fast to positively identify, I am fairly certain that it was a question mark.

The question mark is a member of a small group of butterflies that can be seen in the Peach State flying about on warm winter days. This short list includes such species as the American snout, eastern comma, mourning cloak, sleepy orange, common buckeye and little sulphur.

Most of Georgia’s 170-plus species of butterflies survive the winter as eggs, caterpillars or pupae. Monarchs and most cloudless sulphurs escape cold weather by migrating to warmer climes. The adult butterflies that we occasionally see during the winter spend most of their time hibernating in such places as hollow trees, log piles, beneath the loose bark on trees, behind the shutters on your house or in abandoned buildings.

They will only venture forth when temperatures rise well above freezing. When things cool down, these gossamer-winged insects return to their protective shelters.

The reason for this is that they are cold-blooded animals. For all practical purposes, they unable to regulate their body temperature like warm-blooded animal such as raccoons, white-tailed deer or the family dog. Consequently, they are at the mercy of the temperature of the air surrounding them. When it is cold, they are cold.

Butterflies are very active when temperatures range between 80-100 degrees Fahrenheit. At the other end of the spectrum, when temperatures drop too low, butterflies cannot contract the muscles that allow them to fly. Typically, temperatures have to be at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit to enable most butterflies to fly.

Several years ago, butterfly houses were the rage. These elongated houses were equipped with slits that allowed the butterflies to enter. Supposedly once inside, the butterflies could hibernate on pieces of bark. While butterfly house were attractive conversation pieces, it was quickly discovered that butterflies rarely used them. In fact, I have never had anybody tell me that they have ever seen a butterfly in a butterfly box.

If you want to provide a winter shelter for those butterflies that fly in winter, don’t waste your money on a butterfly box; spend your time building a log pile. A log pile for butterflies should be constructed by crisscrossing logs atop one another. This provides lots of open spaces within the pile. Complete the job by laying roofing shingles between the top two layers of logs. This will help protect butterflies hibernating within the pile from rain and snow.

Most sightings of butterflies in winter are chance encounters. However, if you want to increase the odds of seeing a winter butterfly here are a couple of tips you might find helpful.

• Look for them basking on the sunny sides of buildings, sunlit driveways and sidewalks.
• Look for active yellow-bellied sapsucker holes in the trunks of the trees in your yard. While these tiny reservoirs are excavated by sapsuckers for their own use, a number of other wild animals, including wintering hummingbirds, chickadees, squirrels and butterflies, feed on the sugary sap that wells up in the reservoirs. 

If you happen across a mourning cloak, try coaxing the butterfly to perch on your hand. If you flush one from a perch, you can take advantage of its habit of returning to the same perch. Simply hold your hand at arm’s length slightly above the perch. Sometimes when the butterfly returns to the perch it will alight on your hand. If you moisten a finger before extending your arm, the butterfly will actually feed on the minerals contained in your saliva.

Believe me, it is exciting to find a butterfly on the wing in winter. Whenever I see one, I can’t help but think that spring, that time of renewal, is just weeks away.

Terry Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. His column is a regular Georgia Wild feature.