The Nature Writers of Texas

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

An Unusual Number of White Peacocks
by Ro Wauer

What an increase in butterfly numbers in recent weeks! After months of low butterfly numbers – for both species and individuals – populations have suddenly rebounded. At least in our garden at Mission Oaks, butterflies are commonplace. As many as two dozen species can now be found nectaring on the crucitas, mistflowers, and lantana blooms. And of all the butterflies utilizing our yard, the most surprising is the number of white peacocks. Fifteen to twenty of these semi-tropical species are present at any one time.

White peacocks are lovely creatures. They are slightly smaller in size than queens, usually land with out-stretched wings, and are easily identified because they are so different than any of the other butterflies. They are mostly white above and below, but fresh individuals possess orange to orange-brown margins, a large black spot on each forewing, and two smaller black spots on each slightly scalloped hindwing. Very fresh individuals may even have a bluish tinge.

Although a few white peacocks appear in the Golden Crescent every fall, I have never before found the numbers of individuals that are currently present. White peacocks are commonplace in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and individuals have been recorded throughout Texas. But this may be a banner year. Their larval foodplants include frog fruit, water hyssop, and green shrimp plant, all species that do occur in much of South Texas. Although my yard includes lots of frog fruits, it seems that the white peacocks in my garden are those that mostly are passer-bys, stopping for a short time or a few days to feed on the available nectar plants.

In previous years in the Golden Crescent numbers of white peacocks have been recorded only in a few select locations. The eastern portion of Saxet Lake Recreation Area, an area with an abundance of frog fruit, has been one choice site. I have assumed that that one location has supported what might be considered a “temporary colony,” an out-of-range breeding population likely to persist for a few to several years only. Such a colony can occur when a gravid female happens by and, finding adequate foodplants, lays eggs that then lead to a viable population. That population may persist until it is lost due to freezing, drought, or other natural causes. This scenario is not too unusual for butterflies, and it may help to explain the gradual shift of some southern species northward.

I suppose that one reason for my surprise at the number of white peacocks in my yard this year is because of the recent drought throughout most of its range in Texas. All during the period of drought the butterfly numbers have been extremely low. Their essential foodplants had been severely limited to inadequate moisture. But now, after several weeks of normal rainfall the vegetation has responded and the butterfly numbers have also increased. All the butterflies, especially white peacocks, one of our favorites, are more than welcome.

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