Mourning Cloak Butterfly

It is almost time to start seeing butterflies in my beautiful wildlife garden here in northern Kentucky.  One of the first butterfly host plants that I begin to monitor daily is my young sugarberry tree.  It can feed the caterpillars of several species of butterflies and moths, including one of my favorites – the Mourning Cloak butterfly.  The following photos were taken during previous years.

Lots of eggs in one basket


The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly lays large clusters of eggs around small twigs of their host plant.  Since the butterfly hibernates through the winter as a winged adult instead of a chrysalis, it is one of the earliest butterflies that I  see in my garden.  As soon as there is a warm day or two in the spring, Mourning Cloaks wake up and start looking for tree sap runs (like woodpecker holes) to feed from and potential mates.

Safety in numbers ?


The newborn caterpillars eat together in a large group.   I bring them indoors to raise in order to photograph them and also to protect them from predators.  I’ve added a penny to this photo to show just how tiny those babies are when they first emerge from their eggs.

Prickly but harmless


You have to be careful if you decide to handle caterpillars.  Some species of moth caterpillars are covered with irritating hairs or venomous spines that can cause severe pain or allergic reaction, particularly for anyone who is sensitive to bee stings.  Mourning Cloak caterpillars are covered in hairs and spines, but they are harmless.

Time for a change


After a couple of weeks the caterpillars are mature enough to shed their last skin to reveal the chrysalis underneath.  It is light gray with some pinkish color on the pointy tips.  In another two weeks the butterfly is ready to emerge.

Time to fly


Mourning Cloaks love to bask in the sunlight.  I keep several large rocks in my garden just to invite these pretty butterflies to sunbathe.  I love the velvety colors on their wings.  You cannot mistake these for any of our other native butterfly species.


Notice the muted colors on the underside of the wings.  Mourning Cloaks prefer tree sap over flower nectar, and they perch on tree bark with wings closed and almost disappear from sight.  I saw one flying around a couple of days ago, so hopefully I will find some egg clusters soon!


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  1. says

    Judy, love your photos of the Mourning Cloak’s life history. I rarely find their eggs. With your post sharing that they lay their cluster of eggs around small branches, I’ll have to look closer. One of my favorite “finds” was a hackberry branch in our yard dripping with Mourning Cloak caterpillars. Years before we’d found one when we lifted up a branch to mow under it and there they were covering the underside of all the leaves on that branch. We’re starting to see our first Mourning Cloaks here in southern NJ — a true treat. Hope you won’t have to wait too much longer to see yours. Thanks for sharing.
    Pat Sutton recently posted..25 Years Studying the Maurice River

    • says

      Thank you Pat :)
      I love to search my young hackberry trees for other kinds of eggs too, including Question Mark butterfly and Eastern Comma butterfly. I’ve also found Snout butterfly caterpillars on them. What a great host tree!

  2. Blair Hamilton says

    I was outside today and saw my first mourning cloak came inside went to this website, like i do daily, and you have an article about this very same butterfly. I live up in Ontario about 2.5 hrs northeast of Toronto .We have some native bees ot as well, and am hoping to see some question mark and comma butterflies as well . Thanks for the posting. P.S. up here they use elm trees alot.

  3. says

    Oh, they look so pretty!

    I planted a Willow (Salix spp.), and an winged elm (Ulmus spp.), with the hopes of adding these beauties to my troop! I understand that cottonwood (Populus deltoides), aspen (P. tremuloides), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), can also be hosts as well as your hackberry.

    No signs of any in my garden as yet, but the larval hosts are pretty new. I do have the oaks. Fingers crossed.
    Loret recently posted..Bagworm Moth likely Abbot’s Bagworm Moth (Oiketicus abbotii)

  4. says

    The Mourning Cloak has been one of my favorites since I was a kid. I saw lots of them in Oklahoma but none down here in the piney woods of east Texas.

  5. says

    Judy I learn so much from you all the time…I would love to spend time with you in the garden searching out butterfly eggs, larvae, cocoons and the like. I hope to see this beauty in my garden this year too!
    Donna Donabella recently posted..Silent Spring

    • says

      Thank you Donna :)
      I’m always playing “nature detective” and bringing strange new eggs and critters into my house to study. It’s so much fun to hand-raise something new and share the photos with everyone. I even got curious about the fungus gnats that come out of my house plants’ dirt, so I dug around until I found their larvae and took photos…..still haven’t discovered their tiny eggs yet.


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