Knowing the White-throated Sparrow

By Edie Parnum

White-throated Sparrow on northern breeding grounds. Photo © Gerald Dewaghe.  Click to enlarge.

White-throated sparrows come to my feeding station every day during the cold months.  Easily recognized, these crisply-plumaged brown sparrows sport a white throat, white stripes on the head, and a bright spot of yellow at the base of the bill. A tan-striped form has somewhat less bold plumage. I notice they prefer to eat the seeds on the ground beneath the feeders. Their feeding style is entertaining. They jump forward with both feet and then scratch back to uncover the seeds. Using their strong bills, they quickly crack the shell and consume the nutritious morsel. Over and over, they jump, scratch, and grab a seed.  Then, there’s a quick lift of the head to check for predators.

Around my yard, I glimpse them in the brushy areas. I’ve left the perennials standing over the winter and allowed leaves to remain on the ground. This is their preferred habitat where they find plenty of seeds and insect eggs, larvae, and cocoons. Flocked together and mostly hidden in the dense vegetation, I hear their soft chips as they keep in contact and a metallic chink sound if alarmed.  Occasionally they sing their sweet song, “Ole Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”. Mostly, they keep quiet, but alert, to avoid detection by hawks, neighborhood cats, and other predators. I think I know this bird well.

Tan-striped form of White-throated Sparrow feeding in leaf litter.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Admittedly, I see only a small portion of its life. The White-throated Sparrow isn’t a year-round resident here in southeastern Pennsylvania. With breeding grounds in the northern forests. I’ve never seen one establish its territory, build a nest, incubate eggs, or feed caterpillars to its young. I’ve missed seeing its life challenges, too.   At some point, it probably survived an encounter with a deadly predator or narrowly avoided a disastrous crash into a window.  Perhaps one spring it returned to its usual breeding location in the boreal forest and discovered it had been logged—destroyed to make toilet paper. I’ve probably missed all its major life events.

My feeders don’t provide everything these birds need. Opportunities to observe what this bird requires to survive are limited. The unseen beneficence of nature provides the food, shelter, water, and places to raise its young for this creature and all living creatures.


Milkweeds for Monarchs – 2014

By Barb Elliot


“The lowest numbers of Monarchs ever recorded” 

“Monarch migration at risk of disappearing”

This is the devastating news about Monarchs over-wintering in Mexico. These Monarchs migrated last fall from eastern portions of the U.S. and Canada to reach their historic Mexican wintering grounds. Each year scientists count the number of acres of trees where the Monarchs cluster during their winter stay in Mexico. This winter Monarchs covered just 1.7 acres — a significant decline from the previous low of 2.9 acres.

Male Monarch in Barb's yard.   Photo © Barb Elliot

Male Monarch in Barb’s yard. Photo © Barb Elliot

Loss of milkweed is the primary reason for the steep decline in Monarch numbers. Milkweeds are the only plant Monarch caterpillars can eat. Millions of acres of milkweed habitat have disappeared in the mid-west due to the use of genetically modified (GMO) corn and soy crops. Farmers spray their fields with Roundup, and the crops survive. However, this herbicide kills the other plants like milkweed that previously grew in and around crops. Since these Roundup Ready crops came into use over the last 15 years, almost 80% of milkweeds in the mid-west have disappeared. Monarch population decreases have correlated in lock step with the loss of milkweed.  Milkweed habitat is also lost due to development and mowing of roadsides. Extreme weather over the past few years in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada has also contributed to Monarch losses. Cold snaps, heat waves, droughts and heavy rains have also taken a toll on the Monarchs and milkweeds.

Monarch laying egg on Butterfly Milkweed.  Photo @ Barb Elliot.

Monarch laying egg on Butterfly Milkweed. Photo @ Barb Elliot.

As a result, last summer we Monarch-lovers saw few, if any, Monarchs. With these steep declines, we’ll surely see even fewer this summer. However, Monarch experts say that the Monarch population can bounce back – probably not to the high levels of the 1990s, but to a lower “new normal”. To improve their numbers, Monarchs need MORE milkweed.

That’s where we come in. We Monarch-lovers must plant more milkweeds this year. The Monarchs, fewer in numbers now, will need quantities of milkweeds to find the plants easily and lay their eggs. Also, milkweeds are very important plants in the web of life and provide high quality nectar for a variety of other important pollinators.

Monarch caterpillar on Barb's Swamp Milkweed.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

Monarch caterpillar on Barb’s Swamp Milkweed. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Let’s keep the welcome mat out for Monarchs! To that end, we are selling Butterfly Milkweed and Swamp Milkweed this year for only $2 a plant. Plant some milkweeds to help the Monarchs. If you already have some, plant even more! Plant them in containers, too. Talk to family, friends, and neighbors about the need. Get permission to plant them at a community park, church, business, roadway, or open space, too.

Now is the time for YOU to help the beautiful Monarchs survive for generations to come.


Milkweed Sale Information

Cost:  $2 per plant.  Cash only.  Money collected above our actual costs will be donated to Monarch Joint Venture, a partnership of organizations working to conserve the monarch migration.

Plants Description:  Plants are landscape plugs with well-developed (about 5”) root systems.  When in bloom, they look like this:

   Butterfly Milkweed                                                                Swamp Milkweed      (Asclepias tuberosa)                                                             (Asclepias incarnata) 

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Photo © Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) Photo © Barb Elliot.








Minimum Order:  5 plants of one species only.  That is, 5 Butterfly Milkweed or 5 Swamp Milkweed. Not 3 of one species and 2 of the other.

Number of Plants:  Plants will be sold in multiples of 5 per species only, e.g. 10, 15, 30

Maximum Order:  None.  However, supplies depend on availability from our wholesaler.  Plants will be reserved based on the order in which orders are received.

Order Deadline:  Orders must be received no later than April 30, 2014..

Pickup Date & Time:  Saturday, May 31st, 2014 – 10 AM to 3 PM.                                             Sorry, no alternate pickup times can be arranged.

Pickup Location:  Roberts Elementary School, 889 Croton Rd, Wayne, PA 19087       For Directions, click here

General Planting Recommendations:
1. Plant in clusters, preferably at least 5 plants per cluster to attract passing Monarchs.
2. Plant 12” apart.
3. For more detailed planting instructions and other ways to help Monarchs, click title:  Planting and Caring for Your Milkweeds.

If you have any problems ordering or questions, send an email to

Order Confirmation:  You will receive a confirmation email within 7 days from  Please set your email filter to accept email from this address.  If you do not get a confirmation email within 7 days, send an email to: 

Marvelous Migrating Monarchs Need Our Help

By Barb Elliot

Monarch butterflies are on the move.   I’ve been seeing them fly through my yard, above fields, over traffic jams, through neighborhoods.  These fragile creatures are heading southwest toward their ancient wintering grounds, stopping along the way to rest and sip nectar from late-blooming plants.  The peak of Monarch migration through our area is mid- to late-September, but you may still see Monarchs if you spend time outdoors.

This generation of Monarchs is different from those we saw in the summer.  Those Monarchs were intent on mating and laying eggs and only lived from two to six weeks.  But this generation will live for about eight months and is in the midst of an epic journey.   They will not mate, but instead are programmed to fly to a place they have never been before – mountains in Mexico where millions of Monarchs will roost together to survive the winter.  Some of them will fly as far as 3,000 miles!

Monarch Fall Migration Routes

Migrating Monarchs depend on nectar sources along their route for energy to complete the journey.  Next spring, the Monarchs that survive migration and the winter in Mexico will fly north into Texas, mate, lay eggs on milkweed plants and die.  Caterpillars will hatch from the eggs, eat milkweed, change into chrysalises, and emerge as adult Monarch butterflies that in turn fly north, mate, lay eggs and die.  The next generation will make its way farther north and east, repeat the cycle, and the U.S. and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains will once again be populated with Monarch butterflies during spring and summer.  The great, great, grandchildren of the Monarchs that are now flying south will be the ones we see during their migration to Mexico next fall.  Though some butterfly species complete a one-way migration, Monarchs are the only butterfly species in the world that accomplishes a two-way migration.

Monarchs roosting on their Mexican over-wintering grounds. National Geographic photo.

Migrating Monarchs face many threats, including bad weather, predators, and lack of food, but some have always survived to continue the species.  However, if current

This Monarch, caught by a praying mantis, won’t make it to Mexico. Cape May, NJ, September 12, 2012 Photo © Barb Elliot

trends continue, we are in danger of losing Monarchs altogether.  This year’s population, according to Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, is about half the long-term average.   Monarch numbers have been declining since the late 1990’s, but the downward trend has accelerated since 2003.  Monarch Watch indicates the major cause for the decline is loss of food sources in the U.S. from development, routine mowing along roadsides, and the widespread use of herbicides that kill milkweed plants, the Monarch caterpillar’s only food.  Increased use of genetically modified corn and soy crops on mid-west farms is likely responsible for much of the population decline.  These crops are engineered to survive the spraying of herbicides which kill milkweeds and other plants growing in the fields.  Since the year 2000, about 100 million acres of former Monarch milkweed habitat in agricultural areas have been lost in this way. The milkweed habitats that are left are not sufficient to sustain the larger Monarch populations of the 1990s.

This Monarch near Austin, Texas is much closer to the Mexican wintering grounds, but faces drought conditions with few flowers to provide nectar. October 9, 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot

Monarchs need our help!  Monarch Watch has suggested a national effort to plant milkweeds in as many locations as possible, and have instituted a campaign called Bring Back the MonarchsIt’s not too late to get some milkweed started in your garden this fall, or you can wait till spring.  Perhaps you can think of additional locations that milkweeds could be planted, such as in schoolyards, parks, business properties, or roadsides.  Milkweeds do well in containers, too, so a large space is not necessary.  Of the five species of native milkweeds in my yard, my favorite is Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  I found many Monarch eggs on my Swamp Milkweed this summer and also noticed that adults seemed to prefer the long-blooming Swamp Milkweed flowers’ nectar to that of other flowers in my yard.

You can help migrating Monarchs and other fall-flying butterflies by providing late-blooming nectar plants such as native asters and goldenrods.  Consider adding flowering plants to your yard that provide a succession of blooms from spring through fall.  You’ll be providing nectar not just for migrating Monarchs, but also for the Monarchs and other butterflies that fly earlier in the year.  Check the native perennials on our Backyards for Nature plant list for some suggestions.

Male Monarch on New England Aster in Barb’s yard. September 21, 2012. Photo © Barb Elliot

If you add milkweeds for Monarch caterpillars and nectar plants for the adults, you will be helping to make more Monarchs.  You’ll not only have the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping to increase the population, but you’ll be able to see these marvelous butterflies in your yard and even witness their metamorphosis of egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly! You can also have your yard certified as a Monarch Waystation through Monarch Watch.  This will mark your contribution to preserving Monarchs and show others how they, too, can help one of the true treasures of the natural world.

Certified Monarch Waystation sign from Monarch Watch. Photo by Barb Elliot

Below is a list of the locally native species of milkweed that I grow in my yard.

Locally Native Milkweed Plants**

Botanical Name Common Name Bloom Color & Period Light  & Soil Conditions
Asclepias incarnata Swamp   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Part to full sun, moist soil
Asclepias tuberosa Butterfly   Milkweed Orange flowers; June to August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias  verticillata Whorled   Milkweed White flowers; July & August Sun, dry to average soil
Asclepias purpurascens Purple   Milkweed Dark pink/purple flowers; June & July Part to full sun, dry/ average/moist soil
Asclepias syriaca* Common   Milkweed Pink flowers; June & July Sun, dry soil
  *Spreads rapidly by underground rhizomes;  best for large areas with other flowers and grasses
  **All are deer resistant

For a list of local nurseries that sell native milkweeds, click here.

For info on how to gather and plant milkweed seeds, click here.