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New, Wild and Precious Life

By Heather Shirley I May 03, 2022

There are about 725 species of butterflies in North America. They’re differentiated from other insects by their scaly wings; in fact, the scientific name for their order, lepidoptera, translates from Greek as ‘scaly wings.’

Although I did not intend to write this month’s column as a sequel, I am inspired to write about what I observe as I ramble about in the natural world. Last month, love was in the air, so I wrote about mating rituals. This month, rather unsurprisingly, new life is everywhere.

A resident pair of sandhill cranes strut proudly behind my home with their two offspring, which are called colts because of their strong legs. A mother otter decided to move her babies from one pond to another, and I watched her carefully and competently transport each pup in her mouth, much as a mother cat transports kittens. My most magical sighting, however, occurred on my own lanai (what decks or patios are called in south Florida, where I live).

Right before my eyes, a new butterfly came into the world.

A friend called in the middle of the day, and I went outside to my lanai. I sat down on the edge of the pool to stick my feet in the water while we chatted and happened to look under the coping stones. A delicate chrysalis was hanging there, and it was slightly trembling.

As I watched, the butterfly inside seemed to unzip a flap in it and wriggled itself out. Its wings were sort of crimped and hung down uselessly as it slowly walked about an inch away and hung, upside down and motionless, for a few minutes. The air dried its wings, and I saw them straighten.

Within minutes, the butterfly flapped them a few times, then took its initial flight. It landed not too far away, clinging to the screen of the pool cage. It quickly became a dexterous flyer, so I opened the door to let it out. It flew out to my garden and rested on my plants, happily posing for photos and sipping nectar.

I felt awed by this event, this new life that I witnessed come into being. OK, I guess technically it was not a new life but a transformed one, since it had been alive in other forms (egg, larva, pupa). Still. The alignment of universal forces for this event to occur are incomprehensible to me.

My pool is screened in—how did a caterpillar get inside? How did it crawl upside down, mere inches above the water surface, to transform into its pupa stage? How did my (clearly ineffective) pool cleaners miss this precise spot, so as not to disturb the chrysalis? How on earth did my friend call, motivate me to go sit on the pool steps to talk to her, so I happened to glance at an inconspicuous spot—all at the right moment? The alignment of circumstances staggers me.

A week or so later, I was swimming and guess what? There was another chrysalis hanging from the coping stones! Looking around the pool cage, I eventually spotted the second butterfly up at the apex of the screen.

Concerned it wouldn’t find sufficient food, I vowed to help this new butterfly head outside into the wild, wondrous world. Eventually, with perseverance, a large kitchen strainer and a very gentle touch, I was able to release it. I have, in subsequent days, enjoyed seeing a pair of butterflies flying together in my garden.

I am a birder—passionate about observing, identifying and keeping lists of the birds I encounter. People do the same for butterflies. I am not a keen butterfly enthusiast, but because I enjoy knowing a little bit about a lot of things in the natural world, I dabble. After researching my natural history library, I learned that my new butterfly friends are called white peacocks, native to south Florida. With a wingspan of about 2 inches, these butterflies have lovely coloration of white, orange and purple scales on their wings.

There are about 725 species of butterflies in North America. They’re differentiated from other insects by their scaly wings; in fact, the scientific name for their order, lepidoptera, translates from Greek as ‘scaly wings.’

Their four wings (two front and two hinds on each side) are covered in tiny scales that overlap like roof shingles, and the way they overlap makes up the pattern and coloration of their wings. Some scales are pigmented while others refract light. I had always heard that if you touch the wings, you disturb the scales, and the butterflies won’t be able to fly. Further investigation disproves this. Scales get damaged naturally and butterflies can still fly—but of course, touching and potentially hurting these fragile creatures are not encouraged.

They are indeed remarkably fragile and vulnerable. Out of every 100 butterfly eggs laid, only one grows to adulthood—and even when one survives those incredible odds, most species’ lifespan is just two weeks. It makes me think of a line from my favorite poet, Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I hope my butterflies have a joyous, safe and fulfilling time on Earth, however limited. I hope you do, too. It’s a pretty special place and time.


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