Backyard Beauties: The Cairns Birdwing Butterfly

Posted on Posted in Backyard, crawly, North QLD

A colleague of mine planted native Aristolochia vines a few years ago in the hope of attracting more butterflies to her garden. It seems her efforts finally paid off with the arrival of stunning Cairns Birdwing Butterflies (Ornithoptera euphorion) earlier this year!

Found along northeastern Australia from Mackay to Cooktown, the Cairns Birdwing is Australia’s largest endemic butterfly. The females’ wingspan can measure a whopping 18cm, and they’re easily recognized thanks to their vivid coloration. I think their highly adapted lifecycle is their most fascinating attribute…

Adult Cairns birdwing butterfly
Male Cairns Birdwing Butterflies are smaller, but more colourful than the females. Photo courtesy of Robyn Merritt.

They are fussy butterflies who lay eggs on native rainforest Pipe Vines (Aristolochia tagala and Pararistolochia deltantha). Females find the ideal vine using chemical receptors in their legs and abdomen to ‘sense’ tender, caterpillar-friendly leaves. Newly hatched caterpillars eat their own nutritious egg shell, and will even eat other caterpillars if times are tough. Caterpillars are brightly coloured to ward off predators, and store toxins absorbed from Pipe Vines so attackers won’t make the same mistake twice!

Cairns Birdwing caterpillar
The Cairns Birdwing caterpillar uses bright colours and sharp spines to ward off predators. Photo taken from www.fnqhome.com

When caterpillars are almost ready to pupate they ringbark their vine. Although leaves droop from water loss, the flow of nutrients is concentrated so the caterpillar gets a more nutritious meal before pupation. Pupation occurs in a cleverly camouflaged cocoon, which resembles a dead, dried leaf.

As soon as adult butterflies hatch the race is on to mate, as they only live for 4 – 5 weeks. Males are extremely territorial, performing early morning patrols and competing with other males to find fresh, newly hatched females. Courtship can be lengthy (up to 36 hours) and aggressive, and apparently the female slips the male a sedative to ensure he behaves himself!

Cairns Birdwing Butterflies mating
A pair of Cairns Birdwings mating, with the female above the male.

The species was once under threat due to wide-scale clearance of its native rainforest habitat, and the spread of exotic vines including Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia elegans). A. elegans closely resembles the native A. tagala vine, and is lethal to the butterflies in their larval stage.

Programs to eradicate the exotic vines, and increase public awareness have helped the species re-establish throughout their range, and numbers are thought to be increasing.

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44 thoughts on “Backyard Beauties: The Cairns Birdwing Butterfly

  1. The photo of the catapillar is fantastic. We have a similar looking catapillar that eats only our citrus at home. It has yellow spines rater than red ones that let of a potent oddur when disturbed. Might be worth investigating what type of butterfly this is.

    1. Hi Jason, thanks for your comment. It is most likely an Orchard or Citrus Swallowtail (Papilio aegeus aegeus) caterpillar on your citrus – they are renowned for omitting that stinky odour when disturbed! Never fear, they shouldn’t do too much damage to your plants, and soon you should be seeing the butterflies

    2. Sounds like the common Orchard Butterfly, Caterpillars morph a couple of times before pupating. Butterfly quite pretty red, white and black.

  2. photos are fantastic and article is very informative, esp about catapillar storing toxins in its spines.

  3. Hey Great article, I have a couple of questions? Does anyone know where I can get the Aristolochia vines ? And does anyone know if the vine is toxic to Chooks and Ducks ?
    Thanks

  4. I have found what I beleive to be the remains of a cairns birdwing butterfly in my yard? Could this be possible, I live at Birkdale which is an eastern suburb of Brisbane.

    1. Sounds like an interesting find Barry – however, it’s more likely to be a Richmond Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia). Equally as brilliant as the cairns birdwing in colour, but slightly smaller in size. Richmond birdwings used to be quite common around the suburbs of Brisbane but have declined heavily in recent years, and are actually now listed as vulnerable. We’d love to see some photos if you happened to get some! This site provides plenty of extra info: http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/wildlife-ecosystems/wildlife/threatened_plants_and_animals/vulnerable/richmond_birdwing_butterfly.html

  5. The Cairns birdwing, and most other butterflies, doesn’t spin a cocoon, which is a silken structure in which the pupa or chrysalis of a moth is found. Its chrysalis is supported only by a silken thread around the middle and a small knob of silk by which the base is also anchored.

  6. I have a chrysalis that has been on a leaf near my Dutchman’s pipe vine for almost three weeks. I have been checking it most days as I look after children and it’s a great learning experience for them. I have noticed in the last few days that there are several black ants hanging about the chrysalis and I am wondering if they pose a threat to the chrysalis. I was planning on cutting the leaf the chrysalis is on and bringing it indoors close to when it will emerge anyway so that we can watch it happen but with the ants I am wondering if I should do it now. Any info about removing the leaf it is on and taking it indoors as well as the risk the ants pose if any would be very much appreciated. I have some great photos of the caterpillar, the chrysalis, further eggs we found and then the newly hatched caterpillars and their growth that I can share. I also plan to take photos or video footage of the emerging butterfly that I am happy to share as well. I live in Townsville if that is of any interest.

  7. Hi Bronwyn! Apologies I didn’t reply to your comment earlier! I am wondering how your chrysalis turned out? Did you get it away from the ants and manage to hatch it indoors? I would love to see any photos or footage that you might have. What a wonderful phenomenon to share with the kids :) Looking forward to hearing back from you.

  8. We planted some dutchmans pipe in the rainforest that our house back onto (in Cairns) and later we found what we were certain were the birdwing caterpillars. We collected them and fed them some of the leaves. One by one they created their cocoons on the stick we put in the container (with a single thread wrapped around to hold it in place). However the pictures of the caterpillars look slightly different to the ones we found. The ones we have are black with white stipes and spines but no redish colouration at all. Some of them have been in coccoons now for about 2 weeks so time will tell but we are wondering if they are birdwings or not. We did see a Female hovering around our plants a couple of days ago.

  9. We planted 4 vines on a single tree and they attract so many of the birdwing butterflies. At the moment there are about 50 caterpillars that you can see !

  10. Hi Kate
    Sorry its taken so long 2 reply. The first chrysalis, the one i was asking about, got eaten by the ants so rather disappointing for us. However we’ve had two more since then and have managed to keep the ants away from them. The first came out and turned out to be a male, although we missed it emerging from the cocoon we did see it fluttering about on the ground before taking its first flight, nothing caught on camera though. The second, I believe, is about to emerge any day now as a friend and I noticed it moving its bottom end backwards & forwards late yesterday afternoon

  11. How can you keep the ants away. I’ve heared about them being a threat to the chrysalis befor. Can you tell when the butterfly is close to emerge.

  12. Hi terry
    I cleared anything that the ants could use to get to the chrysalis from around the leaf the chrysalis was actually on. This left only the leafs stem as an access point for the ants & i kept checking for ants most days after that. This worked although that might have been more luck than anything else. I had two backup plans in case this didn’t deter the ants. The first was to place baby powder on the stem somehow as i used to do this to stop green ants using my rope clothes line as one of their paths when i lived in the rainforest. They wouldn’t cross the powder & i figured other ants will have the same aversion to it. It would’ve had to be done every few days or so due to weather so a bit labour intensive & Im not sure how i would’ve coated the bottom of the stem. My second backup plan was to remove the leaf the chrysalis was on & take it indoors away from the ants, although there’s no guarantee that ants wouldn’t have found it indoors, they’re ability to find food is quite something.
    As for ways to tell when its ready to emerge it usually takes around 4 weeks from when the chrysalis is formed but this is just a guide as factors such as weather play a part. I have noticed the chrysalis starts to darken towards the end but Im not sure if this is an indication or just a product of the passage of time. The last one i had in the garden wiggled its bottom end backwards & forwards a few days before it emerged but i think you’d have to be watching it a lot to notice this, i was just lucky to catch it. Hope this helps
    Bronwyn

  13. By the way i have read elsewhere that it is illegal to interfere with the eggs, caterpillar or chrysalis of the Cairns birdwing in any way. Thought id better let you know that.
    Before its gone – the female Cairns birdwings in my garden have laid eggs on a plant with similar leaves to a happy plant that the dutchmans pipe vine is climbing on. There eggs have successfully hatched & the caterpillars quickly move to the vine. I have some very good photos of the caterpillar that i am happy to share, just not sure how to do that.

  14. While ants can be an issue the major problem seems to be a wasp that lays eggs in the caterpillar and eats the butterfly in the chrysalis .
    I lost 20 odd butterflies this way last year. Fortunately this year there has been multiple females and they have spread the eggs over several months. This splits up the amount of mature caterpillars and has not attracted the wasps..so far.
    If you take the chrysalis off the vines you can kill the butterfly as they need to be in the position they are laid.

  15. I have found one of these caterpillars in my front yard. it has been there for 3 days now. Was wondering how long it will be there for? i have been taking photos of it every day and today i noticed the black lines up and down the leaf. I love how big and fat it is!

  16. we have planted the vines here in townsville and have had some success in attracting the butterfly. We have quite a few caterpillars now but we have this horrible bug about 2 cm long and very flat body that sticks a spine into my babies and is sucking the life out of them. Does anyone know how I can get rid of these things, I do not want to poison them as I do not want to hurt the caterpillars, but I can not stand going out everyday to see another lifeless body. I kill them as I see them but unfortunately the rotten things hide from me. HELP please as I am down to a meager 12 caterpillars due to this pest. I am sorry I have no idea what the bug is but it also eats grasshoppers and anything else it can suck dry. It is not concerned if the prey is poisonous or not.

  17. i may have overexagerated slightly on its size its probably only 1 and a half centimetres from its tip to tail. It looks bigger to me when it is killing……….

  18. We live in the Mirani area of Mackay, and for the first time in about 18 years a female cairns birdwing butterfly turned up in the garden, what a beautiful sight! it was about 8.30am Sunday 29th September. I ran into the garden with my little camera, she seemed to favour the red bougainvilliea plant. I finally took a reasonable photo, after some careful judging of where she might land on the plant. She looked very healthy and certainly quite active, such a delightful sight. Unfortunantly she flew away, maybe she will come back!

  19. I live in Cairns and have enjoyed reading all the comments on the Birdwing butterfly. I have three vines growing at the moment with lots of catterpillas on all of them. They grow so fast no wonder as they just eat all day. Looking forward to my first chrysalis. Does anyone know how to propagate the vines?

    1. Hi Anmarie, I have three vines, that had caterpillars/butterflies last year & got another 2 large vines from Bunnings; I wonder do you know if the butterflies return to deposit their eggs at a certain season of the year as they have not returned again yet? I live in Westcourt.

  20. We have a couple of Cairns birdwings on our vine, one has successfully shed its skin and formed a Chrysalis and the second one (who seemed to have trouble from the beginning) shed half its skin, but still has its top half attached, split in some spots, I am wondering if this means it has not formed a proper chrysalis and if it will die, or if there is still a chance it may survive! we have been watching them both very closely and recording their journey, they are such fascinating friends to have in the garden!

  21. hi my name is Kerri we have 2 birdwing vines we are having trouble with ants but each day I try to get rid of many ants as possible. But we had 3 caterpillars growing happily and they were big and all of a sudden we lost them in days I don’t know what happen to them can someone tell me it is very sad to see them taking like that please help

  22. Hi, have lived in Weipa, Cape York, for over 29years. Seen quite a few Ulysses in that time but seen a male birdwing here today, seen some in Cairns before. We have a bridge across river system 1km long. I was on motorbike & noticed it flying like sideways in slight breeze & it made it all the way to thee side. Great coloured healthy lookind speciman too.

  23. Hi, I live in Townsville, and we’ve had bird wings in our background fairly consistently for the 3 years we’ve lived here. We planted the vines and have had huge numbers of caterpillars over the years, and lots and lots of butterflies. However they seem to have disappeared over the last 3-4 months. The vines are thick and growing like crazy, but no caterpillars, or butterflies to be seen. Any ideas? Are they seasonal?

  24. my vine was full of leaves and I had 5 caterpillars on it they ate all the leaves so my mum and I got 2 more vines and then 2 disappear these vines are only small will they have enough food I don’t want to see them die what can I do

    1. Bower birds and green tree ants like the larvae. Have not observed any predator chasing the adult butterflies

  25. I’ve had a few caterpillars pupate, however one is green in colour and all the others are brown, does this indicate male/female butterflies?

  26. My husband and I have got thousands of seeds. We grew one vine that died and picked a dozen seed pods off. We planted 50 seeds and got 48 vines out of them.

  27. We had 3 huge birdwing caterpillars which all but devoured our aristolochear vine. We knew it wasn’t going to last the distance so took caterpillars to our daughter inlaw who had a huge vine. She grew it in hope of encouraging butterflies but had none. In one week caterpillars have made major inroads into devouring the vine and we’re keen to know how long they live before becoming pupa. Hoping the vine will last, would appreciate knowing how far from pupa stage we are. We’re in Cairns and they’re massive gorgeous looking creatures. Our daughter inlaw, Claudi is pregnant and watching process closely and extremely nurturingly ??

  28. Could you please advise if it is true that the Cairns birdwing caterpillar needs a plant different from the food plant on which to pupate? Two of my vines are on a trellis that has no contact with other plants. Should I transfer them ? How would I know the correct time to do so ? Hope you can help. I want to save these individuals if possible. Many thanks.

    1. In my observations over many years the mature caterpillars always leave the host vine and attach themselves to the underside of a leaf on a nearby tree/shrub. They even have attached themselves to the wire fence on which the vine is growing. Sometimes well over a metre away. At present have a pair visiting possibly the latest hatchlings from the fence. She has deposited lots of eggs, three on one leaf.

  29. Hi everyone, i had a friend give me some caterpillars his advice was to use frontline and mince in a small soft drink can and hang it in the bush or trees where there are green ants are as they eat the chrysalis, I found you need to plant lots of vines so the caterpillars won’t strip them. hope this helps happy butterfly watching.

  30. I planted an Aristolochia vine several weeks ago and now have dozens of Birdwing caterpillars that have completely demolished the vine, leaves, seed pods and branches. Does anyone know how long before the caterpillars pupate? I am worried they will run out of food before too long. Perhaps I should cull some of the smaller ones? I bought another two vines from Limberlost today and the lady told me someone had brought them 1800 caterpillars recently so it looks like we will be in for a Birdwing glut, here in Cairns, very soon.

  31. I have several aristolochia vines only half a metre outside my bedroom window here in Townsville. I get to see the whole cycle of the cairns birdwing. They seem to tolerate the black ants. I have seen the ants walk over the caterpillar and right up to its mouth when it is feeding. The most reaction I have seen from the caterpillar is to turn its head. Also, I have a chrysallis actually on the vine. Yesterday a large caterpillar I had seen on the vine was on the ground beneath it. I went out and picked it up (using a leaf) and put it back on the vine. I watched for a minute and it resumed munching. This morning I noticed there were 2 less of the largest caterpillars. I wondered if I had interfered when I had picked it up. Perhaps it had dropped to the ground to go in search of something else to pupate on. ???

    1. Hi Mike – that’s great you get to see the whole lifecycle. I’ve also seen caterpillars on the ground and wondered the same thing. I agree your missing caterpillars may be looking for somewhere else to pupate or perhaps have become a hearty meal for a bird?

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