Viceroy Magic

Photos, paintings and a story by John Ruskey

Note from NWNL Director Alison M. Jones:  John Ruskey is a NWNL Partner and friend, and owner of Quapaw Canoe Company which runs expeditions on the Lower Mississippi River, its backwaters, oxbows and bayous. As NWNL highlights the value of the Endangered Species Act, we applaud John for supporting biodiversity on our on willow-ed creek banks. As Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Let’s protect their habitat, the loss of which poses the greatest danger to all species. The poised wings of the little Viceroy mimics that pause between heartbeats that Terry Tempest Williams says provides the grace of life, writing: “To protect what is wild, is to protect what is gentle.”

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On Montezuma Island in early July I happened upon a Viceroy butterfly that could not fly — due to an injured wing. So I kept her for observation. 2 weeks later she was still alive, due to a daily regime of water and care, but by the third week she was noticeably weaker.

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On the Mississippi River the Viceroy butterfly (Basilarchia archippus) prefers black willows (Salix nigra) as host plants for laying its small pale green eggs, and if you look carefully you might see examples of its entire life cycle on the leaves, branches, twigs and trunk of one willow tree. The chrysalis disguise themselves as bird poop — they look like slimy green blobs with white and yellow. The caterpillars rear up like a snake when disturbed.

(*note: this is just another remarkable feature of the lovely black willows which grace our Lower Mississippi River! For many, the willow is their source of food and shelter: in addition to Viceroy there is the Beaver and us, the Mighty Quapaws… We use willow for cooking, especially for smoking fish and meat. Willow makes the best shish-k-bob sticks. Stands of young Willow make the best shelter when setting up camp in windy or stormy weather. Mature Willow forests provide cool shady spots for hammocks, afternoon naps, and summer camp sites.)

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The Viceroy looks a lot like the Monarch butterfly, but she is slightly smaller (by an inch or so), her oranges are darker (almost cinnamon red sometimes). She has some tell-tale markings that differentiate her: 1) a couple of white spots on a diagonal splash across the fore wing, and 2) a black vein line swooping along outer edge of hind wing.

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Viceroys range across North America from Hudson Bay southwards down the middle of the country, down the Mississippi Valley, westwards to Great Range. My Audubon Guide says “In each life stage the Viceroy seeks protection through a different ruse. The egg blends with the numerous galls that afflict the willow leaves upon which it is laid.  Hibernating caterpillars hide themselves in bits of leaves they have attached to a twig.  The mature caterpillar looks mildly fearsome with its hunched and horny forecparts.  Even most birds bypass the chrysalis, thinking it is a bird dropping. The adult, famed as a paramount mimic, resembles the distasteful Monarch. Since birds learn to eschew Monarchs, they also avoid the look-alike Viceroy. Southern populations of Viceroys mimic the much deeper chestnut-colored Queen instead. In flight the Viceroy flaps frenetically in between brief glides.” (National Audubon Field Guide to North American Butterfiles).

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Concentrating water droplets in her tongue: I watched in amazement the first day Viceroy took a drink of water from a wet rag I had set her on.

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First she explored the rag with her antennae. Seemingly satisfied, she then extended her tongue (proboscis), uncoiling it to its full 1″ or so length. She delicately tapped the saturated rag repeatedly. Then she drew her tongue back in, coiling it into ever-tightening loops. As the coils tightened a tiny drop of water magically appeared where there once had been nothing, like an early morning dew drop.

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I took her on every trip we had in early July. One morning she drank dewdrops from our roll-a-table. According to my Audubon Guide the proboscis is composed of 2 parallel, linked tubes, which work like a pair of drinking straws. It can be coiled tightly up against the face (the Viceroy seems to have a slot between its eyes for doing this, hiding the tongue when pulled all the way in).

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In week 3 she was weakening. I decided to share an apricot-strawberry smoothie I was drinking. She eagerly lapped that up, using her proboscis in the same manner as she had done with water. This seemed to improve her condition. But the next morning she was lifeless. Maybe the smoothie was too much sugar all at once? Or maybe she was ready to die anyway?

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Farewell friend! Thank you for the many hours of beauty you shared in the last days of your life!

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