During our breakfast on the back porch this morning, a Mourning Cloak alighted on the Silver Maple to bask in the sun. The is the first butterfly we have seen since last year. The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis Antiopa, 1758 by Linnaeaus), named after the funeral shawls which were worn by widows and sometimes draped over caskets, is the earliest of the butterflies to appear. They do not migrate but rather hibernate over winter through a form of “cryopreservation,” secreting chemicals which act as a kind of anti-freeze through the cold of winter. Because of this hibernation, once the days start getting longer in the spring, they are ready to get mating sooner than other types of butterflies. They live very long for a butterfly, almost a year, and will die soon after mating.
The Mourning Cloak was warming itself because it needs its flight muscles to heat up before it can do much flying. All butterflies have to be warm to fly. Once flying, they will generate enough heat to keep going. This is perhaps why the body and wings of the Mourning Cloak are so dark, the better to absorb the heat from the spring sun. As we ate our oatmeal and fruit and sipped our espressos, the Mourning Cloak may have been eating its breakfast as well, dining on the Silver Maple’s sap, the adult’s preferred cuisine.
Having breakfast with the Mourning Cloak this morning was a pleasant surprise. It’s always nice to have guests who remind us of the renewal going on all around us.
May Swenson wrote a concrete poem about a Mourning Cloak (though if so, the spots would be blue), “Unconscious Came a Beauty,” which interrupted her writing: