After missing migration, Freddy the monarch butterfly settles in for winter with Manitoba family

A monarch butterfly that missed Mexico migration has been spending winter in Manitoba with a couple grateful for the company.

“It’s kind of nice to have Freddy in these COVID times. It’s a little bit of a distraction,” said Debbie Tonner.

The colourful insect likes to sit on a south-facing windowsill of Tonner’s home in Selkirk, soaking in the sun during the day, she said.

So Tonner set up a cozy space with a soft towel, where Freddy watches squirrels and birds, and gets visits from neighbours curious about the winter stranger.

Monarchs are common in Manitoba in summer but typically make the 3,000-kilometre journey to Mexico in the fall.

Tonner and her husband, Tom, are retirees and empty nesters, so the house is quiet these days, especially with the pandemic curtailing most visits from family.

Freddy has helped fill that void.

Freddy, as viewed through the window, where he watches squirrels and birds. (Submitted by Debbie Tonner)

“We’ll sit there at the dining room table and he’s beside us on the window. It’s kind of comforting. He’s very much a part of our family now,” Tonner said.

“When I go to get him in the morning he always flutters his wings and reminds me of a puppy wagging its tail. He’s always excited to get out of the enclosure and go to the window.”

Tonner feeds him a mixture of honey and water, which is poured over a warmed slice of banana and served up in a pill bottle cap. Occasionally, she spices it up with some soy sauce to provide some salt.

Thanksgiving adoptee

They adopted Freddy on Thanksgiving Day after a friend, Michelle Czebotarenko, found him on her driveway.

“She was loading up her car and was amazed she hadn’t stepped on him because she’d been back and forth two or three times,” Tonner said, noting it was a cool day, around 10 C.

Neighbours visit Freddy at his window perch. (Submitted by Debbie Tonner)

Butterflies are cold-blooded critters and few can fly in temperatures below 13 C. When Czebotarenko took Freddy in, he warmed up and fluttered around, Tonner said.

But Czebotarenko has cats and dogs, so couldn’t keep the butterfly and called Tonner, who immediately took it in.

Tonner’s daughter, Samantha, was visiting at the time and agreed to take Freddy back to Winkler, a more southern city in Manitoba.

“I thought, well, if this butterfly is trying to make it to Mexico, maybe starting off in Winkler would be better than starting off in Selkirk,” Tonner said.

Samantha put the butterfly in a tree the following day when the temperature rose above 13 C, but 20 hours later he was still there, and the weather wasn’t going to get any warmer.

Freddy is treated to a classic Christmas story as he chows on a mixture of honey and water, which is poured over a warmed slice of banana and served up in the cap from a pill bottle. (Submitted by Debbie Tonner)

So Tonner decided to foster Freddy. She made the four-hour round trip to pick him up and bring him home to Selkirk, just north of Winnipeg. 

“It’s 13 weeks now that we’ve had him, and that’s quite long for a butterfly in captivity,” said Tonner, a member of Manitoba Monarchs — a Facebook group that shares information about attracting and caring for the butterflies.

“The only other ones that I know of, who were raised in this area, only live to be about 10 weeks. So he’s doing quite a lot better than that. He seems to have a real will to live.”

Freddy’s name honours two people: the dad of Michelle’s partner and Frederick Urquhart, the Canadian zoologist who first identified the migration of monarch butterflies.

‘Enjoy our time with him now’

Freddy isn’t Tonner’s first monarch rescue this year.

About a week before taking him in, she was given a chrysalis by Czebotarenko, who discovered it on a lawn chair. Concerned about cooling temperatures, Czebotarenko removed it and passed it along to Tonner, who put it in her house.

That butterfly emerged just as a stretch of warm weather arrived, so Tonner drove as close as she could to the Canada-U.S. border and released him. 

“He hopefully made it to Mexico. I don’t know. It was very late in the year,” she said.

Freddy is free to roam around the living room and dining room during the day. (Submitted by Debbie Tonner)

As for Freddy, he stays in an enclosure at night but is free to roam around the living room and dining room during the day.

Over time, however, his wings have started to deteriorate from age and impact. He has a habit of flapping them against the window, whenever the sun comes out, Tonner said. 

“Now, sometimes he’ll go down to the floor and he can’t always get back up,” Tonner said. “So he’ll come and he’ll land on my foot and then I’ll pick him up and put him back on the window. And he likes that.”

The couple knows their time with Freddy is limited, so Tonner said they are just trying to “enjoy every minute.”

“I suppose at some point he will pass away. We’ve just accepted that can happen and we’re just going to enjoy our time with him now.”

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