See the World from a Butterfly’s Point of View

(You can also read this blog, with different butterfly photos, at the Oregon Natural Desert Association’s website.)

Western Tiger Swallowtail on milkweed. Photo: Kim Elton

Western Tiger Swallowtail on milkweed. Photo: Kim Elton

I wonder if butterflies might get annoyed with all the poetic language they attract. They’re “tiny rainbows,” “flying flowers,” and “ephemeral angels.” We use them as metaphors for transformation and symbols of beauty, joy, and immortality.

But what are they really?

My fear is that with all the chatter about beautiful butterflies reflecting the sky or brightening our summer days, we might overlook the astonishing truth of what they’re actually doing out there in the wild and in our backyards.

On your next hike or camping trip in Central or Eastern Oregon, when you see some of the butterflies shown here, consider the remarkable ways in which they, like us, are sensing the world.

Here’s looking at you, Cabbage White. Photo: Sue Anderson

Here’s looking at you, Cabbage White. Photo: Sue Anderson

Sight

Look at the head of a butterfly to see the two tiny compound eyes that give them a wide field of vision (yes, they see you too). They can look up, down, to the side, forward, and backward at the same time, and they can detect colors into the ultraviolet range that confounds us.

Their eyes have tens of thousands of individual light receptors—picture a honeycomb—each with its own microscopic lens. When the amount of light hitting the receptors changes, as when a predator or a net approaches, butterflies can detect the movement and take evasive action.

Juba Skippers might hear you coming. Photo: Sue Anderson

Juba Skippers might hear you coming. Photo: Sue Anderson

Sound

Butterfly hearing hasn’t been studied for long—there is so much about even the most common of animals that we’re still learning. But we do know that some butterflies can hear using a membrane located on their wings (or other body parts) that vibrates in response to sounds.

Some moths have ears tuned to the high-frequency echolocation calls of bats; when they hear those calls, they either take evasive action or drop to the ground as if dead. Butterfly hearing is thought to be similar, only theirs is tuned to different frequencies—like the low-frequency sound of a bird’s wings flapping as it swoops in for a meal.

This Lorquin’s Admiral smells using the tips of its antennae. Photo: Dave Rein

This Lorquin’s Admiral smells using the tips of its antennae. Photo: Dave Rein

Smell

Butterflies have chemoreceptors similar to the ones in our noses, but theirs are located on their feet and antennae. The club-like tips of butterfly antennae are especially dense with chemoreceptors, which can sense the honey-like odor of nectar or the smell of pheromones emitted by males of some species.

Mud provides valuable minerals to these California Tortoiseshells. Photo: Sue Anderson

Mud provides valuable minerals to these California Tortoiseshells. Photo: Sue Anderson

Touch

Butterflies touch and feel leaves, flowers, and other objects with their feet, antennae, proboscis, and tiny hairs all over their bodies.

Taste

Butterflies eat leaves and other food when they’re larvae (caterpillars), building up strength to eventually transform into adults. During their usually brief adult lives, they don’t eat anything. Instead, they drink nectar and other substances using the straw-like proboscis at the front of their heads.

They also taste leaves using chemoreceptors on their forelegs, which is especially important for female butterflies when they’re trying to find the right place to lay their eggs. Each butterfly species can only lay eggs successfully on certain host plants that provide the right nutrients—most famously, Monarchs need to lay their eggs on milkweeds.

Watch closely, and sometime you might see a butterfly drumming her legs—sometimes all six legs—on a leaf to draw out juices for the chemoreceptors on her legs to test. Only if the taste is right, indicating that the leaf is indeed that of a host plant, will she deposit one or more of her eggs.

Get out there

The next time your friend remarks on a butterfly’s beauty while walking quickly past, you might stop and say, “You know, they’re more than just beautiful …” Then stay for a while. Pull out your binoculars and your field guide, so you can both identify the species and appreciate how that one individual is experiencing the world.

A Painted Lady dips her proboscis into a flower. Photo: Sue Anderson

A Painted Lady dips her proboscis into a flower. Photo: Sue Anderson

About the author

LeeAnn Kriegh is the author of The Nature of Bend. Her second book, The Nature of Portland, will be on bookshelves in spring 2020.

A Funny Little Owl

Pronghorn are perhaps the most graceful animal native to the high desert country of Central and Eastern Oregon. Golden Eagles are the most majestic, Greater Sage-Grouse the most emblematic.

And Burrowing Owls? They’re the funniest.

Five Burrowing Owls, Floridana, Florida. by Travelwayoflife,  CC BY-SA 2.0

Five Burrowing Owls, Floridana, Florida. by Travelwayoflife, CC BY-SA 2.0

Let us never overlook the fact that we’re talking about owls who live in dark underground burrows. Not for them the trees that most other birds prefer. No, they move into holes in the ground excavated by prairie dogs, ground squirrels, skunks, and in our area, badgers.

The owls dig with their beaks and make dirt fly with their feet, reshaping the old burrows to their liking and decorating them with cow manure, feathers, grass, and whatever else strikes their fancy (the manure is thought to attract insects for eating and might mask the owls' scent from predators).

The oddest of owls

Burrowing Owls’ predilection for the subterranean is not their only oddity. They also fly during the day as well as at night. And they don’t hoot; they coo (and warble, cluck, and scream). When threatened, they mimic the threatening hiss of a rattlesnake.

More unusual still are their legs. Imagine yourself as the designer of Burrowing Owls, holding a clump of brown clay in your hands. First, you shape the body to be about the size of a bulky American Robin—which is to say a quite small owl. But then you find yourself with lots of excess clay. What to do? And so you roll the clay into two cigars, each maybe four inches long, and attach them as legs—very, very long and very, very not-owl-like legs. Add some bloomer-like white feathers at the tops of the legs, and you’ve got yourself a Burrowing Owl.

Those long legs are a smart adaptation that allows Burrowing Owls to stand tall like curious meerkats, peering this way and that across the broad expanses of grasslands and sagebrush country where they live. They also use their feathered stilts to speed across the ground chasing prey, their bodies thrust forward like a tourist on a Segway.

It’s actually not their long legs that make Burrowing Owls such a social media darling, subject of hundreds of memes and videos—or at least it's not solely their legs. It’s also their white unibrow, which, when lowered, makes them look comically offended and, when raised, suggests the wide-eyed curiosity of a puppy.

Add to their expressive unibrow their body bobs, 180-degree head tilts to the left and right, and communal nature (so you can see groups of them bobbing and tilting at once), and you start to understand why just about everyone loves a Burrowing Owl.

Adoration isn’t enough

Unfortunately, despite our affection for them, we’re not doing a great job of protecting these owls. It used to be you could get your truck’s grill cleaned by nesting Burrowing Owls while you used the facilities at the Brothers Oasis (the rest area in the tiny town of Brothers, Ore.).

But those owls, and countless others across the country, have been killed by people who were trying to kill something else—ground squirrels, in the case of the mating pair in Brothers. The sad irony is that Burrowing Owls are on the same side as landowners, regularly eating their fill of ground squirrels, pocket gophers, and other rodents.

Today, Burrowing Owls are considered “birds of conservation concern” both federally and in Oregon and seven other Western states. It’s not only poisoning and pesticides that’s causing their declining populations but also (and perhaps mostly) habitat loss. They need flat, open territories—shrub-steppe and grasslands, ideally, or agricultural fields and pastures. In Oregon, they also need badgers around to build burrows.

Which brings us to public lands, which provide the natural habitat that Burrowing Owls and just about every other bird needs. Deepening protections of the wild lands of southeast Oregon, for instance, would help these owls and hundreds of other species. So would installation of artificial nest burrows and the addition of more habitat protection programs throughout Central and Eastern Oregon.

There’s nothing funny about the dangers facing Burrowing Owls, but the good news is that through the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) and other like-minded organizations, we can take action to ensure these odd little owls are still out there for a long time to come, cooing and hissing, bobbing and head-tilting, burrowing and bringing us joy.