My, What Big Eyes You Have!

Spicebush Swallowtail Caterpillar

This is the caterpillar of the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly.

This smart little guy has adopted a very smart disguise. Look at those eyes. Huge.

But those eyes are actually a trick, making them look like a snake, even down to the white highlight in the “eye.” Most birds are terrified of snakes and may decide to just leave this caterpillar alone.

The first instars of the caterpillar are brown, and resemble bird droppings, and what self-respecting bird wants to eat that?

These caterpillars tightly roll a leaf around themselves to hide from hungry birds, and if a bird makes it through the rolled up leaf, they are then confronted by those “snake eyes.”

Pretty smart, eh?

Spicebush Swallowtails use Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and also Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) for it’s host plant.

Spicebush Swallowtail

Now the adults are pretty smart, too. Their coloring is a mimic of the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail, which makes birds sick when they eat it. They learn that butterflies that look like that make them sick, so they avoid the Spicebush Swallowtail, too.


Providing for butterflies in your garden is easy when you understand the needs of each cycle in the butterfly’s life. You need to learn which host plant a specific butterfly needs to lay its eggs on. Then you also need to plant plenty of nectar plants for the adults.

You can have a beautiful wildlife garden for butterflies by adding more host plants to your garden.

What host plants do you have for butterflies in your garden?

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

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  1. says

    Wow, Carole, the eye trick is so cool. Is this the only caterpillar with this type of defense? Or should I be looking at spots more closely in the future? We don’t have this type of Swallowtail where we live, but it’s very beautiful indeed.

    • Carole Brown says

      Many caterpillars use disguise as a form of protection. Some use the “look like a snake” defense. Some use the “look like a bird dropping” defense. Some use the “look like a twig” defense. It’s so amazing to me to observe the ways they have developed to protect themselves. Mother Nature is a very smart woman!

  2. says

    I’ve killed a couple of spicebushes over the years, and I could never figure out why–well, except for the one that got hit with the lawn mower, that one was pretty obvious–until one of the nursery people at Niche Gardens explained that spicebush are found on floodplains around here, and absolutely can’t dry out during the spring growing season, but will tolerate dryness later in the year. The one I’ve got in a pot now is three feet high and still growing strong through the heat. I hold out hopes that one of our visiting spicebush swallowtails will lay eggs on it.

    • Carole Brown says

      Ursula, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Swallowtails find your Spicebush and that you will have caterpillars this year!

    • Carole Brown says

      Stephanie the Monarchs are way less in numbers this year because so many of them froze to death at their wintering grounds in Mexico. It’s really important for all of us to add more Milkweed to our gardens.

      On the other hand, my garden is swarming with Eastern Tiger Swallowtails this year, more than I’ve ever seen there before. Others are remarking on this phenomenon, too, although I don’t yet know why there is such a population boom this year.

      And I was in Cape May last weekend for tours of private butterfly gardens, and these gardens were literally dripping with butterflies, so they at least are doing a great job of planting host plants and nectar sources for adults.

      • says

        Well, I have to say that we’ve had far less butterflies this year than ever. I think it was because we had such a long, cold spring and were late in greening up/blossoming. Even the hummingbirds were late, but they are here in droves this summer! My favorite bird, I could watch them all day.
        Kathy Green recently posted..Take a Walk on the Wild Side

        • says

          Kathy it seems like many things are out of sync this year, the Monarchs were late, the hummingbirds were late, some plants are blooming way early, while others are blooming late. It’s a mystery….
          Carole recently posted..Redefining Beautiful

  3. Helen Yoest @ says

    Awesome post Carole!

    I also love their host plant, spice bush. In my garden in Raleigh, I have Lindera glauca, spicebush. In addition to being a host plant, the spice colored leaves in the winter time add a lot of interest to my winter garden.
    Helen Yoest @ recently posted..Ecosystem Gardening with Carole Brown

  4. barbara says

    I love the other host plant, Sassafras albidum, with its leaves that look like mittens. There was one in the next-door neighbors’ yard where I grew up. Beautiful fall color too.

  5. says

    Great post Carole-a really interesting one to share with kids and such fabulous photographs. So sad to hear there are less Monarchs this year but we have an abundance of Yellow Swallowtails. I am always captivated by their elegance and beauty……inspirational.

  6. Lee Becker-Strohm says

    I found a Spicebush swallowtail prepupa on the ground near all my chickens. At first when I looked at it, I thought it was a toy, then thought it was an alien, then thought it might be vicious. I carefully scooped it up with a leaf and looked it up on the web. How totally awesome…it’s such a beautiful creature. Now I need to be sure to release it where it needs to be. We have a lot of green space in the back, away from the chickens :@ Please advise.

  7. says

    Had never seen one of these until yesterday when I found one otside my window–it was yellow had all the markings and those”eyes” made it look as if it was watching me!!!So cute—-told my grand daughter it was the very hungry catepillar!!! Very interesting and so glad we got to see one


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