Join the monarch butterfly on its heroic journey of survival

What do monarch butterflies experience on their 3,000-mile journey south? Imagine you’ve joined the monarchs on their fall migration.

Mike Budd/USFWS | Public Domain

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Monarch butterflies are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, but each year they embark on a trek that crosses thousands of miles.

Through clear skies and storms, across lush prairie and city streets — these amazing animals do whatever it takes to reach their ancestral overwintering grounds.

What do monarch butterflies experience on their 3,000-mile journey south?

Imagine you’ve joined the monarchs on their fall migration

It’s dusk on an early September evening. You’re in Ontario, on the northern shore of Lake Erie.

You see hundreds of the orange and black butterflies gather on a single tree to roost. They’re members of a “super generation.” Larger and longer-lived than their parents and grandparents, they’re well-prepared for the long flight ahead.

As dawn breaks, you see the monarchs flutter one by one into the air. Their internal compass is their antennae. Their compound eyes track the sun above and the landscape below. They set a southwestern course.

Night comes and they rest. Dawn breaks and they take to the skies again.

This pattern repeats until a powerful storm, fueled by global warming, knocks the monarchs, each of which weighs less than a gram, off course. Not all survive.

You see the remaining monarchs cling to tree branches and other plants as the storm passes. Their search for food is growing desperate. Nectar-bearing plants once blanketed the ground here.

Now those plants are scarce, plowed under by industrial-scale farms and poisoned by glyphosate and other pesticides.

By nightfall, they find an oasis. The monarchs arrive at a national wildlife refuge in Iowa. Here, you see the tallgrass prairie restored with plenty of nectar to fuel the next leg of the hungry monarchs’ trip.

Monarchs gather on the trees as they prepare to embark on their long migration.

Photo by Mike Budd/USFWS | Public Domain

A traveling monarch butterfly uses its eyes and antennae to track the position of the sun and stay on course.

Photo by Bernard Spragg | Public Domain

Massive flocks of monarchs travel together, filling the air with bright orange wings.

Photo by Fisherga | CC-BY-2.0

Patches of flowering habitat along the migration route lets traveling monarchs rest and refuel with nectar.

Photo by Emily Kowalski | TPIN

At the end of their journey, a safe haven: Monarchs cover the trees in a biosphere reserve in Mexico, where generations of their ancestors have spent the winter before them.

Photo by Rafael Saldaña | CC-BY-2.0

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Then, more days in flight; more nights at rest.

A week later, the monarchs arrive at a new refuge, in the Hill Country of Central Texas. Flowering plants in the oak savannah supply more sustenance for the last legs of the monarchs’ journey.

It’s November 1. You see our monarchs descend on the oyamel fir trees in the biosphere reserve in Sierra Chincua, the sound of their wings like the gentle rustling of paper.

The moderating impact of the trees on temperatures makes the reserve a good place to overwinter — even though illegal loggers have felled some of the firs. Keeping the loggers at bay is a constant struggle.

The monarchs’ return coincides with the Mexican celebration of the Day of the Dead. For many, the butterflies symbolize the return of the souls of the dead.

A cycle of life begins anew. Our monarchs alight on the same trees where their great great grandparents once roosted.

The monarch’s migration depends on us

How long the cycle keeps turning depends on people like us — people working to slow global warming, create more habitat for milkweed and other native flowering plants, stop the reckless use of glyphosate and other pesticides, stand against illegal logging, and raise our voices for saving the monarchs from extinction.

Their fate is bound with ours, and ours with theirs.

Will you join our campaign to help protect monarch butterflies from extinction?

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