Tag! You’re It.

Tag! You’re It.

By Rick Mikula (Jan. 2018)


It seems odd that when talking about the early days of Monarch migration studies that we only need to go back to 1976. The phenomena and mystery of migration was finally solved and scientists felt their quest was finally over and Professor Fred Urquhart’s was the man who sealed the deal. I was very fortunate to have been able to take part in Professor Urquhart’s early tagging program. I will never forget how my heart pounded as I opened a letter from Toronto Canada stating that a Monarch I had tagged in Nescopeck Pennsylvania was recovered in El Rosario Mexico.


No one can deny the importance of computers in our lives. They bring us videos from the remotest parts of the planet and beyond. They can answer the most obscure questions we could ever think of and share our thoughts worldwide with just the stroke of a key, whether we want them to or not. But back then the excitement of rushing out to the mailbox day after day in hopes of receiving a long-awaited letter from a far-off colleague was well worth the wait. And if it was marked “Air Mails” look out, it was a really big deal. Professor Urquhart’s letter still hangs above my desk today and I can still remember tagging that little guy as if it were yesterday.


Professor Urquhart’s tagging program may have answered many long-debated theories but it opened the door to many more questions. Over the years as more and more data was collected and analyzed those questions began to be answered and many ‘carved in stone’ theories were disproved and eventually cast to the wayside. For example, the theory that all monarchs migrate was held for a very long time. When in fact there are resident populations in various countries around the world that do not migrate including some in the United States. Several southern states have resident populations just stay put for the winter. Recently there have been increasing reports of overwintering sites being found as far north as South Carolina in the east and Arizona in the west. I have just returned from a week in central Florida and there were monarchs everywhere. They were as bountiful as my garden on its best day in July. During the time I was there for three of the nights temperatures dipped to 31° F with 10-15 mph winds. But the following day as the sun rose so did the monarchs and they went about their business as if had never happened.


There was another theory that stated all Eastern Monarch fly only to Mexico and those living west of the Rockies only go to southern California. But with more and more tagging programs instituted coupled with countless hours provided by citizen scientist the notion was eventually proven to be incorrect. Many researchers knew that monarchs have long been routinely crossing the Rockies but it took a series of tag recoveries and data collecting to finally verified it. Tagging program data also proved that not all western Monarchs use southern California as their final destination. Many of the more adventurous West coasters have been found in the Mexican overwintering sites roosting right alongside of their Northern cousins.


During hurricanes monarchs are very good at find hiding places to ride out the storm, most of the time. A few years back it was recorded that a monarch that had been tagged in Ohio was discovered a few days later in Canada, 165 miles to the northeast. It seems that shortly after being released the little guy found himself face to face with a hurricane and the strong winds swept him off course and in the opposite direction! Whether it was prevailing winds or their poor sense of directions some eastern migrators have even been recovered in Cuba.


Don’t dismiss the Monarch as being a flimsy little wimp. Au contraire! Under good flying conditions Monarchs can travel between 50-100 miles a day and take up to two months to complete their journey. Recently one hardy traveler was tagged and released in New Jersey at 1pm in the afternoon and recaptured at 5pm the following day in Virginia 175 miles away. The longest one day flight of a tagged monarch was recorded by one of Dr. Urquhart’s field assistants. The monarch was tagged and released at Waterford PA and recaptured the next day in Virginia but a whopping 265 miles away. Now between stopping for nectar, fighting prevailing wind, and utilizing a 10 hour flight period, that poor monarch had to travel at an average of 26.5 miles per hour. Interesting when you consider that it takes a well seasoned human over 4 hours to run a standard 26.2 mile marathon. It is amazing when you consider that feisty little monarch flew the distance of 8 marathons in one day.


Dr. Urquhart came closer to a well-deserved retirement the unofficial tagging baton was eventually championed by Dr. Chip Taylor from the University of Kansas. I have had the pleasure of being with Dr. Taylor at many conventions and sat totally intrigued at every one of presentations. Dr. Taylor’s ‘Monarch Watch’ tagging program has yield volumes of data and solved many debates with its findings. His website http://monarchwatch.org/ is a wealth of knowledge for whatever you may want to know about monarchs and milkweed. There is a wonderful a on sits native milkweed locator with listings for every state. So if you want to customize you Monarch Migration Station to include indigenous milkweed plants then the Monarch Watch website is the place to go.


There is certainly no denying that those precious winged jewels are very capable of some amazing feats and it won’t be long before will be heading north again. They start their journey a lot sooner than you think and warm temperatures will help to expedite their departure. If you would like to keep up to date with their progress visit Journey North’s website: https://www.learner.org/jnorth/maps/Sightings_All.html Daily sighting reports and migration maps are update regularly and will show you when to expect monarchs popping up in your area.


Nothing can beat seeing the first monarch of the year but will your garden be ready when it happens? Are your seeds ready to germinate? Where will you dampen-off your seedling? When they reach your garden will they meet a barren landscape or a nursery waiting for wandering females to deposit their golden treasures. Using a Monarch Migration Station will help you to make sure that your plants will be well established and ready for eggs. They offer protection from the wind and serve as incubators for plants and eggs alike. The Migration Station eliminates parasites and predators so caterpillars can grow healthy and fast. I use 3 Migration Stations in my garden and can’t live without them. Hmm, I guess that stands true for my monarchs as well.

University of Toronto early style wing tag originally used to study monarch migration. Although the tag weighed ¼ of the butterfly’s body weight monarchs were still able to make it to Mexico. Some were even recovered back the U.S. the following Spring.

Tags that are currently used by the University of Kansas’ Monarch Watch. After years of testing a style and adhesive was eventually developed that ensured that the tag would remain in places under various weather conditions that were experienced during migration.

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