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Facts About the Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail Butterfly

Updated on August 1, 2013
Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail Butterfly
Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail Butterfly | Source

The Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail Butterfly

Flitting about the fields or dancing in the garden breezes of summer, the Eastern tiger swallow tail (Pterourus glaucus) is a familiar site in temperate areas in the United States. It's found in North America east of the Rocky Mountains and as far north as Ontario. To the south, the butterflies are found as far south as Mexico.

The Eastern tiger swallow tail is the state butterfly of Virginia, and in the summer months you'll see plenty of them dancing along the weeds growing by the roadside, flitting about the forest trees, and congregating on mud puddles on gravel roads. These butterflies are all seeking food and nutrients in preparation for mating and continuing their life cycle. Among all the butterflies, the Eastern tiger swallow tail is perhaps the easiest to identify, and the easiest to attract to the garden within its habitat range.

Female Eastern tiger swallow tail may be black, like this one, or yellow.
Female Eastern tiger swallow tail may be black, like this one, or yellow. | Source


The Eastern tiger swallow tail is fairly easy to identify. It is about 3 inches long and either yellow or black in color, with orange, brown or blue spots along the edges of the lower wings. Black bands appear on the yellow wings. The ends of the wings taper into points, creating the 'swallow tail' effect. The wingspan can be up to six inches. The tails of the Eastern tiger swallow tail are always black.

Life Cycle of the Eastern Tiger Swallow Tail

During the summer months, adult Eastern tiger swallow tail butterflies seek mates. After mating, the female lays brown eggs on the underside of the leaves of various plants. The eggs are often laid singly, with one egg per leaf. She prefers to find tulip tree leaves or black cherry tree leaves for her eggs, which is why you will often find Eastern tiger swallow tails in and around the woods.

When the caterpillars emerge, they are brown at first, but will turn to a bright green color over time. The caterpillars have false eye spots, and if threatened, can stand up on their hind ends. This makes them look like tiny snakes, which may be enough to threaten away a hungry bird or other predator. If that's not enough, they'll secrete a bit of liquid which has an awful smell, another way of telling predators, "Go away!"

The caterpillars eat leaves of deciduous trees and woody plants before finding a safe shrub or tree to turn into a chrysalid. The chrysalids overwinter, protected by the boughs of the trees, until they are ready to emerge during the warm days of spring as adult butterflies and begin the life cycle again.

Plants for Butterflies

The Eastern tiger swallow tail needs a variety of woody plants and trees in order to thrive. Females lay their eggs on tulip tree and black cherry tree leaves, but the adults and caterpillars eat different plants for food.

Caterpillars require host plants for food and eat the leaves of various deciduous trees:

  • Black cherry
  • Ash
  • Tulip
  • Willow
  • Birch

Adult butterflies feed on a variety of wild and garden flowers. Flowers that attract the Eastern tiger swallow tail include:

  • Buddleia or butterfly bush. Most of the photographs that accompany this article were taken in my garden, where the tiger swallow tails love to perch on the butterfly bushes. Butterfly bushes can be invasive, so make sure you have plenty of room for them if you choose to plant them.
  • Echinacea, also called purple coneflower. This native North American perennial is a favorite for many types of butterflies but especially for the Eastern tiger swallow tail. Purple, yellow and white varieties are available.
  • Day lilies are another native perennial suitable for butterflies
  • Annuals such as petunias, geraniums, lantana and marigolds

Interesting Facts

  • Male Eastern tiger swallow tails are always yellow.
  • Females can be black or yellow. If they're yellow, they tend to have more or larger blue and orange spots on the tail.
  • Males congregate together on mud puddles. This is aptly called "puddling". Scientists aren't sure why only males puddle, but they suspect that the moist earth and rocks provide the males with minerals necessary to produce pheromones, scent chemicals that help attract females.
  • The Eastern pipevine butterfly looks a lot like a swallow tail, but the spots are orange and bigger.
  • Adult butterflies only drink nectar. They won't harm your plants.
  • Any chemical insecticides you spray to kill bad bugs can also kill butterflies, so if you really love butterflies in the garden, use only organic gardening methods and avoid harsh chemicals.
  • Males do not stick together for long. While they may congregate near mud puddles, they like to be off by themselves. Females too tend to be loners.

Female Eastern tiger swallow tail on marigolds in the author's garden.
Female Eastern tiger swallow tail on marigolds in the author's garden. | Source


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    • Jeanne Grunert profile image

      Jeanne Grunert 4 years ago from Virginia

      Thanks! I love photographing the butterflies in my garden, and these are all my original pictures. I appreciate the comments!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Thanks for posting this informative hub. They are certainly beautiful- love the pics!

    • grayghost profile image

      grayghost 4 years ago

      Thank you for your article! Before our youngest daughter moved away, she planted a "butterfly garden" in front of the house for us. One of the plantings is a very robust Buddlleia. The garden has treated us with a wonderful butterfly display for two years now. Just this week I (the non-photographer) managed to get one of those spectacular accidental photos of a Swallow Tail that now resides as my computer "desktop". Your article was very informative, and as always, your photos tell their own story!

    • Tod Zechiel profile image

      Tod Zechiel 4 years ago from Florida, United States

      Nice, concise and informative article. We vacationed this summer in the Williamsburg area. While we were there for the historical sites, we could not help but to notice all the male eastern tiger swallowtails. Such graceful fliers - certainly added to our vacation experience. Thanks for reminding me of them.