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2017-03-02

Integrating Monarch butterfly habitat on land managed for Northern Bobwhite

By Krista Ruppert Texas A&M WFSC ‘16

Both northern bobwhite and monarch butterflies have significant cultural importance in Texas and the United States as a whole, but both also are being carefully monitored as species of conservation concern due to declines in the wild. Though butterflies and quail are vastly different on the surface, there is some overlap between habitat requirements for each, and it may be possible to use land managed for quail to help monarchs as well with only a few changes.
Photo from Texas A&M AgriLife Today.
Northern bobwhite can be found almost statewide in Texas, only absent in the far west counties of the Trans-Pecos. They do not migrate and can be seen and heard year-round in coveys, pairs, broods, or as individuals. Monarch butterflies, on the other hand, hold the distinction of being the only known butterfly to complete a two-way migration each year– to the south each fall in order to spend the winter in Mexico, and back north each spring to spend the summer in Canada. Along the way they pass through much of the continental United States, consuming nectar and breeding as they go. During their migration, monarchs pass primarily through East and Central Texas but may be found in West Texas to some degree. This area coincides with the distribution of bobwhite in Texas, so it follows that there would be some degree of overlap.
Bobwhite distribution in Texas (left) and monarch migration paths through North America (right). Photos from TPWD and the US Forest Service.
For monarch butterflies the most important plants are those of the genus Asclepias, more commonly known as milkweeds. These plants are used by monarchs as a place to lay eggs, as the leaves of these plants are the sole sources of food for growing caterpillars. When choosing milkweed for monarchs, it is important to select a plant native to the area. Though some tropical milkweed plants bloom year-round, this does not necessarily make them better for monarchs; breeding out of season on non-native milkweed may lead to increased mortality of caterpillars due to lack of food and freezing temperatures, as well as a greater likelihood of infection by debilitating protozoan parasites. Milkweed plants may be potentially toxic to some species of wildlife, including quail; however milkweed poisoning is extremely unlikely due to the plant’s bitter taste. Browsing species such as sheep and goats may be vulnerable to milkweed poisoning, so milkweed and livestock areas should be separated accordingly.
Though quail cannot use milkweed, there is some overlap between key plants for bobwhite and nectar sources for monarchs. Monarchs require native flowering plants for nectar, which gives them the energy to reproduce and continue their migration. Some of these plants include sunflower, hackberry, cenizo, partridge pea, and sumac, all of which contribute to the life of northern bobwhite for diet, brooding, or loafing. In addition to these specific examples, both monarchs and bobwhites benefit from a landscape of diverse native grasses and flowering plants. Unfortunately, the expansion of agriculture and urban areas over the decades has led to a decrease in native plants, including milkweeds, which is very likely an important factor in reviewing the decline of monarch and bobwhite populations.
This chart details native milkweed species and the ecoregions they are most suited to. When purchasing milkweed, visit a local seed and plant supplier to ensure the plant is correct for the region in order to increase likelihood of success. Chart information derived from “Identification of milkweeds in Texas.”
With the inclusion of native plants comes the exclusion of invasive exotic plants. If land is already being managed for bobwhite, it is likely that invasive species control measures are already being implemented to some degree. Methods of invasive plant control and removal include mechanical removal, prescribed burning, controlled grazing, and herbicide use. All of these are common methods of habitat management for bobwhite, making their implementation beneficial to both quail and monarchs. However, it is important to time these activities to cause the least disturbance to butterflies and larvae using the milkweed plants. It is recommended to consult a wildlife or land management professional to help develop an invasive species control plan, particularly when using herbicides as many may be toxic to monarchs. Additionally, a professional will be able to evaluate habitat parameters and help to determine the best combination of techniques for the desired results.
One of the most important steps in creating and sustaining landscape-level habitat for quail and monarchs is rangeland habitat monitoring. This is the most effective method of documenting changes to habitat in order to assess current management technique effectiveness and develop plans for future management. For quail, it is important to monitor vegetation changes, precipitation, nest sites, cover, plant diversity, and grass heights. For monarchs, milkweed presence, water sources, and year-round native nectar-producing plants need to be monitored. If monitoring is already being completed for quail, taking special note of milkweeds and flowering plants may be the only change necessary to adapt procedures for monarchs as well as bobwhites. See the AgriLife Extension publication “Habitat Monitoring for Quail on Texas Rangelands” for a specific overview of how to monitor and interpret results for quail. For monarchs, preliminary research indicates that one caterpillar requires approximately one milkweed plant; therefore the more milkweed plants on a property, the more breeding monarchs can be supported.
On land managed for bobwhite, it may be possible to “kill two birds with one stone,” as the saying goes, by altering management practices to benefit monarch butterflies. Both species are culturally significant and in decline, but by monitoring habitat, supplying native plants, and implementing land management strategies, they could make a comeback. Visit Texan By Nature for more information and resources on managing for monarchs and the Monarch Wrangler program, and the Wildlife and Fisheries AgriLife Extension Page to learn more about bobwhite management.