News Stories

Butterfly Goodbye

We've been saying goodbye to the monarch butterfly for a long time now, and due to the clearing of land in the small, 217 square-mile area in central Mexico where they migrate to every winter, we may see the demise of this beautiful species very soon. Will we be saying goodbye to some birds as well?

Intense deforestation in Mexico could ruin one of North America's most celebrated natural wonders?the mysterious 3,000-mile migration of the monarch butterfly. According to ecologist Chip Taylor, the astonishing migration may collapse rapidly without urgent action to end devastation of the butterfly's vital sources of food and shelter. Taylor says, "To lose something like this migration is to diminish all of us. It's so truly spectacular, one of the awe-inspiring phenomena that nature presents to us. There is no way to describe the sight of 25 million monarchs per acre?or the sensation of standing in a snowstorm of orange as the butterflies cascade off the fir trees." But these fir trees are being rapidly chopped down.

In spite of its protected status, the isolated reserve is suffering from illegal logging driven by soaring prices for lumber in Mexico. This logging, once sporadic, has increased in recent years and now is threatening the very survival of the butterflies. Over the past two winters, millions of monarchs have died from exposure to wind and cold temperatures in clear-cut areas. Taylor says, "It's a remote area, and it's difficult to police. There are elements that are quite forceful in their logging. They carry guns. They overpower the local residents. They sneak in there at night, sometimes with 100 trucks, and clear out 2 or 3 hectares [a hectare is roughly the size of two and a half football fields]. And we've got the local residents contributing to this as well."

When it comes to birds, we have the same sorts of worries. Urban areas are the fastest-growing habitat on earth, but little is known about how plants and animals fit themselves into landscapes dominated by humans, but they've proven to be more adaptable than Monarch butterflies. Birds faced with urban development are a lot like people when choosing a place to live. Some species, including pigeons, thrive in the noise and confusion of city life, others prefer to stay firmly rooted in the country and some are comfortable in both environments.

Arizona urban ecologist Paige Warren says, "Urbanization turns large areas of wild land into cities and suburbs, and has a profound effect on native species, changing where they live and how they interact. Knowing how these organisms relate to each other and their environment is critical to developing sound conservation strategies."

Anyone who has spent time in a major city can probably guess that pigeons show a marked preference for urban life. Warren says, "Pigeons [can be] found in cities around the world. There [is] a sharp decline in the probability of finding them in the outlying desert and agricultural regions." In other words, they've become strictly city birds.

But pigeons didn't migrate from their wild homes to conquer the big city by themselves. "These birds were taken from the rocky coasts of Malta several hundred years ago and kept as pets in Europe, where they became genetically different from wild pigeons," Warren says. "Eventually they escaped into cities, where they adapted remarkably well, since they will eat almost anything and are well-suited to live on the sides of buildings."

When it comes to the less-adaptable butterfly, Chip Taylor says what we're all feeling: "The monarch migration is truly a wonder," Taylor says. "Here, you have a fragile insect weighing a half a gram, with a tiny brain, that comes out of Mexico in the spring, migrates up to the breeding areas where it has several generations, then migrates back again to an area that the year's last generation has never been to. There are lessons for life in this butterfly and we need to protect it. If we don't, we're pretty lousy stewards of this planet and it bodes poorly for our future."

Art credit: gimp-savvy.com

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