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The Migratory Instinct

Monarchs are not the only species that can’t stay still
      A couple of monarch caterpillars chewed their way to chrysalis as I watched, making do with the drying leaves of my little stand of milkweed.
       Earlier, I’d seen their orange-and-black-winged parents visit the flowers I’d hoped would attract them: the milkweed plus purple Joe Pye weed, bright red butterfly weed, red, purple and white coneflowers, orange black-eyed Susans. 
Success in the next stages of monarch metamorphosis is by no means assured; there’s nothing they can do to avoid the predators and parasites that have sucked the life out of so many of the much more numerous caterpillars and chrysalises nourished by my colleague Susan Nolan. But if they’re lucky now and for weeks to come, these Fairhaven-bred monarchs may be the long-lived generation that returns to Mexico. There, in mountain colonies, they could join millions of the kin overwintering in the oyamel fir boughs.
      You’ll see a photo of how densely they roost, bending the boughs like a heavy snowfall, in Margaret A. Barker Frankel’s feature story this week. And you’ll read about the many ways we Marylanders are taking our turn in helping these creatures reach the next stage of their 3,000-mile, four-generation annual migration. No small part of the wonder of the monarch feat is the three-life-stage-metamorphosis nature demands of every single butterfly.
       Among the many Marylanders feeding monarchs are, Margaret tells us, 6,500 first graders.
       Wonderful connections rise from that alliance. Most wonderful is the insight all those six- and seven-year-olds are gaining into the workings of nature. For the rest of their lives, they’ll see a natural miracle in every butterfly. They’ll grow up, we expect, to be planters rather than destroyers of milkweed, the do-or-die link in every monarch generation’s survival. Monarch caterpillars make even the pickiest kid eaters seem omnivores by comparison. Milkweed leaf is the one and only thing they’ll eat. 
       Another point on the scale of wonder is the similarly timed migration of our children. With school back in session, school buses are — staff writer Kathy Knotts reminds us — our constant driving companions. An early meeting yesterday morning gave me time to reflect on that migration, in my stop-and-start commute behind an Anne Arundel County school bus. 
      At one stop the faithful dog, a black Lab, waited for the bus with the kids, then trotted back up the drive alone.
     (Dogs are no longer allowed to be migrants; the neighborhood or town dog many of the elders among us knew growing up is a dog of the past.)
      Kids and a dog: That’s all I know about the family whose home this now is. Not so long ago by the big clock, it was Down Under Farm, named by long, long-time local Purnell Franklin for his second wife, Honey, an Australian he’d met on his only migration, as a World War II soldier, and wooed and won a quarter-century later.
      Maybe it’s true, this insight offered me last week in Maine by a young friend who grew up in Fairhaven but now lives mostly in California. Maybe the migrating urge is as old as the hills, sweeping more species than monarch butterflies into the air, onto the water and over the fields, mountains and roads. 
      I’m thinking about that this fall, as the osprey — even the reluctant, untried babies — begin their intercontinental flight and as, all over the world, human migrators take on journeys just as hazardous, compelled by the shining inner light of hope.