Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in haiku

Earlier this week I posted about Honeysuckles and the importance of pollinator gardens. In that post, I wrote a haiku that mentioned the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  Well, as it turns out the Monarch butterfly might have been a perfect fit for my haiku, but it wasn’t what I was seeing.  I was actually watching an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus).(1)

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail is one of the most common butterflies on eastern United States and can be distinguished from the Monarch by the differences in colors.  The Monarch is orange and black, whereas the Eastern Swallowtail is yellow and black.  Looking at them side by side it is easy to tell the difference.(2)

Photo Credit: Mark Scott NaturalistWeekly.com

However, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail could be easily confused with the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis). These two butterflies look amazingly similar, and as their names suggest they are closely related.  There are, however, a few distinct differences between these two species.(3)

First, there is their habitat.  The Canadian Tiger Swallowtail lives primarily in Canada and its territory can reach as far north as the Arctic Circle and south into the northern parts of the United States, which would include Wisconsin and Vermont. The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail lives primarily in the eastern United States covering a range that reaches from Vermont to Florida and west towards the Great Plains.  So, depending on your location you can sometimes rule out one or the other.  However, if you are located in one of the places where their habitats overlap it would be important to be able to distinguish them another way. 

The other way to tell the the Canadian Tiger Swallowtail from the Easter Tiger Swallowtail is in the markings on the wings.  The website Wisconsin Butterflies provides this great summary of the differences.

Canadian Tiger Swallowtails have the following characteristics:

  1. The yellow marginal spot band on the front wing below is continuous, while in the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail these are broken into distinct spots
  2. The broad, black line on the trailing margin of the hind wing reaches at least halfway to the first vein; in the Eastern this is less than halfway, and in fact it is often considerably less than halfway.(3)

The second characteristic of the black line on the hind wing was helpful when I was watching at the butterfly on the honeysuckle.

But, what does this mean for my haiku?

William J. Higginson, wrote in his essay Guidelines for Writing Haiku in English, a Haiku is a  “short imagistic poems about things that make the reader feel connected to nature.”  As a writer of haiku, I think it is important to make sure that I am accurate in my description of what is happening. For some, mixing up a Monarch with the Swallowtail might not be a big deal. But for others, this might bring up questions about my haiku. For instance, Monarchs are much more likely to be found in Milkweed than on Honeysuckle (6). And, in Vermont, the Honeysuckles are blooming in June and the Milkweed is just coming up. This means Monarchs are not around when the Honeysuckle first blooms.  This could cause confusion and not allow the reader to connect with the moment.

As a result, I believe a re-write is in order.

A gentle breeze

Shakes the honeysuckle tree

A Swallowtail takes flight


  1. Wikipedia: Papilio glaucus
  2. Save our Monarchs: Butterfly Identification 101 
  3. Wisconsin Butterflies: Canadian Tiger Swallowtail
  4. Wikipedia: Papilio canadensis
  5. William J. Higginson: Guidelines to Writing Haiku in English
  6. Save our Monarchs: Why Milkweed.

26 thoughts on “Eastern Tiger Swallowtail in haiku

Add yours

  1. Interesting information. A good friend of mine has raised monarch butterflies from kits several times. Once, she had a monarch caterpillar crawl on my hand, and, of course, it pooped on me. Ha ha. I do see both monarchs and swallowtails in the garden from time to time. They’re both beautiful.

  2. Nice haiku! I’m comparing the two pics and still having trouble seeing distinction between the Canadian and the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails but it won’t stop me from trying to. Why do you think it is important to know the difference? I have no honeysuckle in the yard but I saw one of these two last week near the lilacs and malva zebrina. I do have an increasing amount of milkweed because I purposely avoid it with the mower at the edges of the lawn.

    1. I have been talking with friends about whether or not it is really important to know the specific names of species. This conversation gets philosophical very quickly. Is being able to name different species a way to feed our ego or does it create a deeper connection to land because you see all the different components of the whole. For me, I think recognizing how vast, complex, and full of mystery the natural world is humbling and grounding. I find being able to see the subtle differences between things, and then there names, part of that process. And, recognizing that words and language is limited and limiting, that naming things also has a limit. What a great question! I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this. Maybe a discussion post is in order?

      1. I understand where you are coming from on this, Mark. In my case, now that I know what each eats, I can ID by what plants they visit and appreciate it. I would like to hear what others think about it as well.

  3. I don’t see very many fancy butterflies around here. There is only one type of yellow-colored swallowtail that I occasionally see. What I do have though is a vast array of awesome moths! People really don’t give them enough credit for the pollinator work they do as well. Every now and then I get surprised by this very cool White-lined Sphinx Moth (aka Hummingbird moth) Hyles lineata. http://pnwmoths.biol.wwu.edu/browse/family-sphingidae/subfamily-macroglossinae/hyles/hyles-lineata/

    1. Hi Melanie, thanks for sharing this link. In my research on the honeysuckle it said that there was a special relationship between it and the nocturnal Hawk Moth. I think you are correct that moths don’t get enough credit for their hard work.

  4. as much as I love your sharing of your approach to nature and as much as I have to learn from it, here I am again reminded of Robert Aitken’s reading of Basho: There is more in it/him than nature.

    Would it be flippant or playful to simply end your previous haiku with ‘ … butterfly taking off, oh no not a Monarch.’? 🙂

    1. Hi Barbara, what an interesting suggestions! Your take adds that bit of juxtaposition that is often a part of the haiku. Very nice!

      1. … and that makes me more aware of what I find in Aitken: it is not juxtaposition as such, it is remaining present to the actual existential ambiguity – one moment joy (about the butterfly), the next judging self about getting the name wrong (or whatever it may be) – learning-in-process.. 🙂

    1. Thanks! I wish I could take credit for all the photos. But I am happy to share and promote other people’s great work. Thanks for visiting!

  5. Mark what an informative & interesting post. We use butterfly names in haiku especially monarch & swallowtail without really knowing which is which.
    I agree when you say it’s good to delve deeper and know the names and what flowers they like.
    We have so many butterflies in our garden – white, yellow, monarchs & swallowtails. Nowadays, its summer in India and we still have very small orange-black ones fluttering. Have always wondered if they are babies or moths….maybe you can enlighten me.

    1. Hi Neena, Thank you so much for your comment. The relationship between the plants and animals is truly fascinating to me. The more I know, the more I don’t know. As for the small butterfly, it may be called a fritillary. I am hoping to share some photos and video that I have of this little guy soon.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: