Friday, 22 March 2013

Four Wings and a Prayer - Monarch Butterflies

A few days ago, I watched the TV documentary based on Sue Halpern's book Four Wings and a Prayer. (If you're in the UK, you can still see the programme up until Sunday). The programme follows the migration of the Monarch butterflies from Canada and the USA into Mexico and back again. The migration of these butterflies is one of the most iconic natural spectacles, specially as the monarch is the only insect that migrates like a bird in this way.

The film focussed on the overwintering grounds in Mexico, which are threatened by illegal logging. Along the way, the film crew meet up with a lot of the academic and citizen scientists who have been instrumental in exploring the mysteries of the migration, along with Homero Aridjis, the 'poet laureate of monarch butterflies', who has done a lot to try to get their overwintering forests protected.They also show the celebrations that Mexican people make when the butterflies arrive (co-inciding with the Day of the Dead - traditionally the people living near the wintering grounds believe that the monarchs are the souls of the recently deceased)

Once I had seen the documentary, I wanted to read the book immediately. The book goes into a lot more detail of the science behind the migration and spends more time with individual scientists, including exploring the rivalries and tensions that are probably commonly found in any group of professionals. The book also is a very personal document, Halpern outlines how her own fascination with Monarchs began and how she shares her fascination with her family.It's an engaging, interesting and important book.

The book was written in 2001 and so is out of date. Given that the documentary is based directly on the book, then it too is probably out of date in its focus, despite being itself quite a new production. So both book and documentary focus on the threats to the monarch being such that the migration risks coming to an end, but this is different from the potential extinction of a species (there being populations of Monarch butterflies that aren't involved in the migration to Mexico).

However, more recently it seems that populations of Monarchs across the USA are declining. According to this article on Myrmecos numbers of Monarchs this year have sunk to perilous levels. The article admits that the reasons aren't clear, but probably include loss of areas of milkweed (the monarchs' favoured plant) and pesticide use.

Monarch Watch is campaigning to Bring Back the Monarchs

Michelle over at Rambling Woods (home of Nature Notes) blogs about monarch butterflies and how we can help them.

Four Wings and a Prayer by Sue Halpern is published by Weidenfield and Nicholson in the UK, originally published by Random House.

As ever, red text contains hyperlinks that ake you to other webpages where you can find out more. 


Caroline Gill said...

I shall look out for both book and programme. Thank you, Juliet.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

I read a smimilar story (about the declining Monarch population) and became saddened. I used to see them all the time as a kid and these days they are such a rare sight.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Amazing butterfly Juliet, I agree.

Bill said...

grandchild's hand in mine
how long will he remember
this butterfly

eileeninmd said...

Sounds like something I would enjoy, I will look for this documentary here. It is amazing how far the butterflies can travel. Thank you for sharing, have a great weekend!

Ms Sparrow said...

I had just read the blog posting of Sparrow Chatter in New Zealand who talks about seeing a monarch butterfly walking home after a funeral. It's good to know they are living in other places like that.

RG said...

Henry Beston's book - Outermost House - from the 1920's had a part on the Monarchs he saw during his year on Cape Cod. Even then he knew that no Monarch makes the complete cycle - those he saw would not be passing through again.

They are very rare here in the Pacific NW

bunnits said...

Two summers ago i saw a monarch flying across the front yard.
Later there were a few monarch caterpillars on the milkweed plants. I was so excited. Unfortunately, none survived.

Anne Higgins said...

I like your blog very much and have bookmarked it and will visit again.

I have a perennial garden here in rural Maryland USA - Mid-Atlantic area. I have Swamp Milkweed plants growing in my garden,which is the host plant for the Monarch. I am delighted to have had caterpillars residing and chewing on them for three summers now... and Monarchs and other butterflies crowding around the Butterfly Bushes as well.

Sallie (FullTime-Life) said...

MIchelle is a real expert on these butterflies! I wish I could plant some milkweed.