At least a couple of Forest Parkers are participating in a nationwide research project on monarch butterflies.
Teams from Chicago’s Field Museum, with funding from the Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are mapping naturalized landscapes in urban areas, including Forest Park, to get a baseline for milkweed plants — the monarch caterpillars’ only source of food. The project, first started in spring 2016, includes work in Chicago, Minneapolis, Austin (Texas), and Kansas City, and is continuing this summer.
“This is really useful for us to estimate how big of a role cities may play in the years to come with the right forms of public outreach,” Mark Johnston, an ecologist at the Field’s Keller Science Action Center wrote in an Aug 28. email to the Review. “Our goal is to better understand how much of a role cities can play in helping to rebound monarch butterfly populations.”
Johnston added that monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains migrate to Mexico each year and have seen a significant population decrease — about 80 percent — in the last two decades. There can be benefits to repurposing a suburban greenspace, like a grassy lawn, into a site hosting milkweed and other natural species.
“By planting a variety of native flowering plants that includes milkweed, you are providing habitat for monarchs,” Johnston wrote. “Pollinators promote gene flow between plant populations important for resiliency, especially in the face of climate change issues. Besides the aesthetic value of monarchs, they are also a classic example for students of metamorphosis, predator-prey dynamics, and mimicry.”
Forest Parkers Micki Leventhal and Con Buckley, who have lived on the south side of town since 2004, have done just that. Researchers from the Field Museum stopped by the pair’s house this weekend and catalogued 445 individual milkweed plants.
“It just developed over the last decades,” Leventhal said of their double-lot backyard garden, which is devoted entirely to natural, pesticide-free plantings. “It’s kinda like a Disney cartoon in the backyard. It just gives us so much pleasure. We see a ton of bees and a ton of butterflies. It’s the right thing to do.”
It is unclear how many Forest Parkers have milkweed plants, but Leventhal said she’s been impressed by some of the plantings she’s seen while biking around town.
Another Forest Parker, Andrew Johnson, said he’s got about a dozen plants at his home near Jackson Boulevard and Wilcox Street.
“We purchased our house last year in April,” Johnson said. “It was just covered in plants and vegetation. Among that were these milkweeds. Our neighbor said, ‘Hey, those attract butterflies.’ Sure enough, we saw some butterflies.”
Lori Lipkin lives on the 800 block of Circle Avenue and got one milkweed plant a few years ago, and it has since spread to about 10. She, like Johnson, enjoys seeing butterflies.
“Now it is coming up everywhere,” Lipkin said. “If they like where they are, they do spread. You can’t control where they are going unless you pull them up.”
Johnston, the Field ecologist, said the museum has done habitat restoration work in the past, but the monarch project is somewhat unique, given its focus on pollinators and the interdisciplinary makeup of the research team.
Johnston and his team, which includes about a half-dozen researchers and more partners in the study’s other cities, have developed a “guidebook” that includes their findings and can, for instance, help municipalities plan for adding plants.
Johnston said only Leventhal and Buckley have participated so far in the study but would welcome other participants. Forest Parkers can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He added Forest Parkers can help out by planting milkweed to increase the monarch habitat.
“I would like to see more of them in the area,” Forest Parker Andrew Johnson said. “It would be cool for Forest Park to be known as a place for butterflies.”