Miraculous Metamorphosis

black swallowtail
black swallowtail

[PHOTOS: SARAH COULBER]

I’m the sort that gets rather nervous at the idea of bringing in a wild animal for observation. For starters, it’s usually illegal. But I’m not talking about birds and mammals or even reptiles and amphibians (you have to let them be!)…I’m talking about caterpillars. My daughter loves the idea of bringing them in and taking care of them, but unless we know for sure what it eats and we can keep it relaxed and healthy, then it’s a no-go.

This summer, we spotted a caterpillar munching our carrot leaves. Looking up its features in relevant books and keeping in mind our region of Canada, we determined it was a black swallowtail. They eat carrot, parsley and Queen Anne’s lace leaves…and we had lots of the latter around. So we put water in some small plastic tubes that we kept from the florists over the years, the kind that keeps flowers fresh while keeping the water safely sealed inside.

black swallowtail in jar

We then cut stems of parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and put them inside a tall glass jar. My daughter had the good sense to add a couple of sticks to the mix, for when our friend was ready to make its chrysalis. We then covered the jar with cheesecloth and an elastic band, for ample air.

This was July 2nd. Our friend soon aclimatised to the jar and our kitchen table, which we kept in a bright spot out of the direct sun, and was munching and pooping and napping rather a lot. By Wednesday afternoon it had moved to the stick and a few hours later we were excited to find it making a white thread which it used to attach itself to the stick. I was able to take some photos, albeit a bit blurry due to the thick curved glass.

black swallowtail weaving thread
black swallowtail weaving thread 2
black swallowtail hanging

Our black swallowtail caterpillar making and arranging its thread around its upper body

It remained the same (as the photo directly above) until Thursday night when a chrysalis formed while we slept, evidence of which was waiting for us Friday morning.

black swallowtail chrysalis

I had to use indoor lighting to get a photo of the chrysalis, hence the shiny look.

Then it was time to wait – around 2 weeks we figured. Well, this morning, holding onto that famous stick was a beautiful butterfly. We were thrilled!

black swallowtail butterfly in jar

I don’t know how long it was like that, but in the end it took a couple of hours or more for its wings to fully dry and become stiff enough to fly. During that time we took it outside and let it climb onto my finger to help it out (something it seemed very comfortable to do, to my delight), but as it was windy and its wings were so limp, we put it back in the jar.

black swallowtail on finger

Later, as it moved its wings more, we brought it out again to perch among the flowers.

black swallowtail top view
black swallowtail underneath view
black swallowtail side view

Top, underneath and side views

Unfortunately, it was getting late for an oil change appointment, day camp and work. But we didn’t want to miss the magical moment when it first took to the air, a moment we’d been anxiously waiting for. So with its now stiffened wings, my daughter gently carried it to a sunny spot and hoped that the warmth would inspire it to fly. After a short while it flew and our hearts soared with it!

black swallowtail feathery area by back

This photo shows what looks like soft fur either side of its abdomen!

Sarah Coulber

Author: Sarah Coulber

Sarah is an Education Specialist at the Canadian Wildlife Federation. She writes about the benefits and ‘how-to’s’ of wildlife-friendly gardening, coordinates content for the Gardening for Wildlife web section, co-manages the wildlife-friendly demonstration gardens at CWF headquarters and assists Canadians looking to achieve similar results with their own properties.

2 thoughts on “Miraculous Metamorphosis”

  1. I enjoyed reading your description of nurturing the larva through the chrysalis stage and then to become a beautiful butterfly. How exciting! This year, we have had nine black swallowtail caterpillars munching on our parsley and I am now regretting that I didn’t do as you did and raise one or two of them under controlled conditions. They have now all disappeared and hopefully have made a chrysalis somewhere, but now my fear is that in the garden clean-up, I will somehow shove them into a garden waste bag. Therefore, I’ve determined I won’t clean up that part of the gardening the hope the chrysalis survives to metamorphose into a butterfly. I have read that this doesn’t happen sometimes until the following spring.

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