Summer is the season when you're most likely to see a gorgeous big yellow butterfly with black striped wings briefly visiting flowers, then sailing away on the slightest breeze. Known as the Western Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), this is typically our largest and most conspicuous butterfly.
The name "Tiger," of course, comes from the prominent black stripes on the forewings, and "Swallowtail" derives from the little protrusion at the end of each hind wing. Tiger Swallowtails also have little patches of blue and orange on the lower edge of their hind wings.
It has been hypothesized that these ornaments serve to draw the attention of birds and other predators away from the body and vital parts of the butterfly — so if they are inclined to nibble on a foraging butterfly, they'll take a bite out of a less essential part of the wing.
Tiger Swallowtails begin life as a tiny green egg, left by the mother butterfly typically on a willow, cottonwood, sycamore or poplar tree. When the egg hatches, a tiny green caterpillar emerges and begins to feed on the tree leaves. Tiger Swallowtail caterpillars are bigger near the head end and have a kind of hump, then taper down toward the hind end — they're shaped like a one-person backpackers tent. They also have a yellow and black eyespot on each side of their thickest part, though these aren't actually eyes and they can't see out of them, it is just defensive coloration to make would-be predators think they are being watched.
After growing and molting five times, the caterpillars are full-sized and they make a camouflaged chrysalis. They will stay inside this pupae for anywhere from two weeks to many months — caterpillars that make a chrysalis in the fall will overwinter and then come out in spring. Whenever they emerge, Tiger Swallowtails inflate their shrunken wings into full glory, and then sail off in search of nectar plants on which to feed.
Due to the large surface area of their three- to four-inch-long wings, Tiger Swallowtails seem to need less active wing flapping to achieve flight, and you can often see them appearing to glide through the air, wings held in a V-shape with only an occasional quick wing beat.
Tiger Swallowtails are typically found not far from a water source of some kind, and they readily take to yards, gardens and other populated areas. I have always enjoyed watching them soaring around Philip Marx Central Park, even when it is crowded during the Tehachapi Mountain Festival, Concerts in the Park or other events.
Male Tiger Swallowtails can sometimes be found congregating with California Sisters or other butterflies in the mud at damp locations along a seep or trickling spring. This behavior is called "puddling," and is a way for the butterflies to obtain needed minerals.
One of the Nüwa (Kawaiisu or Paiute) words for "butterfly" is "ayaataniizi," pronounced eye-yah-ta-NEE-zee, and depictions of butterflies were sometimes incorporated into the best Nüwa baskets. Sand Canyon resident Cindy Waldman has written an excellent book called "The Butterfly Basket" that is a historical fiction for young readers based on an actual butterfly-pattern basket made by an Indian weaver living out near Monolith in the 1920s or '30s.
A newly-emerged Western Tiger Swallowtail, nectar-feeding on flowers in your yard, is one of the most delicately beautiful and ornamental sights to be seen in our mountains. These butterflies look as though they were handcrafted and painted by the finest of silk artists. . . .
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.