Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Ready for the Monarchs?

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer
Night Raccoon Munchies

Early spring the impressively large male raccoon gingerly approached the back yard. The animal stopped to scratch under the outermost bird feeder. Each night he came closer to the house. Two forty-gallon metal garbage cans were lined up against the brick wall. One contained mixed birdseed. The other can held Nyjer seed and squirrel corn. This was also the overnight storage bin for the Nyjer sock and round bird feeder.

Becoming bolder, the raccoon waited until dark and tried to remove the lids to no avail. After a few nights of dogged persistence, he found a way and noisily took the lid off the mixed seed container. The outside light was turned on. The masked bandit dashed away. The following night he was back and tossed off the cover with wild abandon. The ringing and clanging was followed by the porchlight coming on and the raccoon vanished. Or so we thought. Seems he ventured back early the next morning and quietly removed the lid over the sunflower seeds. The lid was then chained and bolted down. We heard him trying to move the lid the next few nights. Scraping and grumbling attracted the cats to the back window. Metallic sounding cries, a bang and then silence. Hmmm. On came the light. The raccoon was sitting in the seed can, lid dangling to the side. The big guy leisurely climbed out of his seed bed and disappeared into the dark. One cement block and weighty outdoor umbrella stand later, and the seed lids were again secure.

Other raccoons began to appear at night. One slightly smaller raccoon and three much smaller versions. Mama and babies. They initially dug around the bases of the bird feeders, drank water from the ground bird bath and walked away. As the babies grew, they became more adventurous, often appearing in late afternoon. The crew shimmied up the tree, one after the other, and sat on the platform bird feeder and helped themselves to seeds. The fur balls tried to walk out on the limb holding the hummingbird feeder. Cute. Within one week, the empty feeder, including ant moat, was found on the ground, parts scattered around the yard. Not cute.

Why not use the greenhouse. It would be a good place to hang the hummingbird feeder, two round bird feeders and the square feeder. The greenhouse door had been open for months, flanked by the tropical hibiscus on the west and the avocado plant with sunflowers on the east. Cascading lemon grass partially blocked the entrance. A great disguise. They’d never find the feeders in there. As an incentive to keep the raccoon family in the back yard, chunks of suet were put out on a flat rock.

It took them two nights. The feeders were located in the greenhouse and torn apart. Seeds were scattered everywhere, along with pots, young plants, nectar and garden tools. Next night, the feeders were put back into the greenhouse, but the door was firmly closed. The window in the door was left slightly open for circulation. The following morning the screen had been torn and partially yanked off, but the enterprising critters could not open the window any wider. Since then, the juveniles have amused themselves by moving the bins around like musical chairs and eating seeds on the ground.

Monarch Chrysalis

It was a serendipitous moment. If the screen had not been disturbed, the Monarch chrysalis would not have been discovered attached to the very top. The bright green case had flecks of gold and a partial line of gold dots across the upper section. Judging from the color, the Monarch pupa was mid-way in development. Was this the full-sized caterpillar munching on milkweed Linda Smith captured in a picture the week before while I was in Maryland? The tropical milkweeds and red flowering Hibiscus have attracted Monarchs in search of nectar and places to lay eggs. The Monarch that comes from this chrysalis will be part of the generation to fly to the cloud forests in Mexico. The mother Monarch that laid the egg was part of the pre-migration.

In late July to early August, Monarchs arrive from points unknown (yes, no one knows exactly where they’re coming from) to meet, greet, eat and lay eggs in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. If these butterflies survive, they join the big migration from Canada which began around Aug. 10th and won’t arrive in Oklahoma until about Sept. 20th.

Monarch Caterpillar

Here’s some information from Chip Taylor (monarchwatch.org/blog/). The timing, pace and duration of the Monarch migration is linked to the sun’s angle at solar noon. Solar noon is when the sun reaches its highest point during the day. Migration begins when the sun angle drops below 57 degrees. Aug. 16th in Lawrence, Kansas, the sun angle was 64.52 degrees. The angle goes below 57 degrees on Sept. 7th, encouraging the butterflies to leave town. Monarch migration lasts from 25 to 33 days in most places. The leading edge takes off when the sun angle slants 57 to 54 degrees (could be awesome or a trickle), a midpoint flush (usually the majority of Monarchs) when the sun angle drops from 53 to 50 degrees and the end. Smaller, mainly female Monarchs fly as the sun angle lowers further from 49 to 46 degrees. The pace can be altered by cold, heat, rain or wind.

Power of Nature

Monarchs in the eastern Dakotas and western Minnesota may not join in the migration due to warm, dry conditions, but the numbers reported in Texas and Oklahoma indicate these Monarchs may beef up southward fluttering ranks in September and early October. The western Monarch migration in California is iffy at best.

Oklahoma Monarchs belong to the eastern migratory population. Summer breeding grounds include southern Canada, central and eastern U.S. Four generations of Monarchs. That last generation makes the 1,300-mile trek from Shawnee to the tropical humid cool Montane cloud forest in Mexico.

Your turn to help the Monarchs. Have stations ready with nectar plants and butterfly puddles (shallow basins with a wet sand/soil mixtures).

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Becky Emerson Carlberg, graduate of Oklahoma State (Plant Pathology) is a teacher, artist, writer as well as certified Oklahoma Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at Becscience@att.net.