Martha and the Monarchs


Martha and the Monarchs have been on my mind recently.  No they are not a rock group from the 60’s that is Martha and the Vandellas.  I am thinking of Martha the last passenger pigeon and Monarch butterflies.  In a tragic sort of way, they have both been in the news recently.

It was one hundred years ago on September 1 that Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati zoo.  It is still hard to comprehend that at one time there were an estimated 5 billion of them, with flocks darkening the sky for days at a time.  But then the populations plummeted.

The extinction is often attributed to indiscriminate hunting by the market hunters.  Passenger pigeons were apparently quite tasty.  Plus the young squabs were even tastier and in even higher demand.  Couple the hunting pressure with some of the pigeons biological aspects such as low reproductive rate (one egg per female per year), specialized diet (largely acorns, beechnuts, chestnuts), and large flocking behavior, and the collapse seems a little more understandable.  But even at that, it still defies logic.

Also in the news recently was that three environmental groups and monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower petitioned the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide protection for the Monarch butterfly through the Endangered Species Act.  I certainly cannot predict whether the species will be listed or where this is all going, but the timing seemed ominous.

If you were to ask most adults over, say 40-50, what butterfly they most remember from their childhood I think it would be overwhelmingly Monarchs.  But we do not see nearly as many Monarchs these days.  It might surprise you, but Monarch populations have dropped over 90% in the last twenty years.

As some of you know, Monarch butterflies are heavily dependent on milkweeds.  They lay their eggs on milkweeds, and the larvae and adults feed mostly on milkweeds as well.  Milkweeds are (I should say were) one of the more common weeds in the Midwest.  But most Monarch butterflies are born in the Midwest where the widespread uses of very effective herbicides in combination with genetically modified crops are making milkweeds hard to find.  As a result, so are the Monarchs.  Other factors are at play here too, including the widespread use of broad spectrum insecticides.

Hopefully the Monarchs can make a comeback, but they might need some extra help to do so.

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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