My friend John, an amateur naturalist, said some very kind things after reading my novel Lost on the Prairie but he did point out a mistake I had made. In one chapter of the book, a pair of young boys come upon a roost of monarch butterflies. Thousands of them are covering the trees and plants in a wooded area. Joe who is a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton First Nation in South Dakota tells my hero Peter that since it is autumn the butterflies are in the midst of their journey migrating south to Mexico.
Of course, the monarchs are on a journey south to Mexico, but my discerning friend John said no one would have known that in 1907 when my book takes place. The information that monarchs went to Mexico was only made public in 1976 when a Canadian zoologist Frederick Urquhart published an article in National Geographic sharing data from a monarch research project he and his wife Norah Patterson had been working on since their marriage in 1945.
Fred and Norah wanted to know where monarchs went for winter and so they began raising thousands of butterflies in their Toronto home. They experimented with all kinds of tagging methods for the monarchs until they found one that worked.
In 1952 Norah wrote a magazine article asking for volunteers to help them with their project. Initially, twelve responded but by 1971 thousands of butterfly lovers were helping catch, tag, and release hundreds of thousands of monarchs. Nora and Fred began taking field expeditions to follow the data and it led them to the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1972 Norah wrote letters to Mexican newspapers asking for help and Ken and Cathy Brugger a pair of amateur naturalists and butterfly lovers took up the search. In 1975 thanks to a tip from some Mexican loggers, they found millions of monarchs carpeting the ground and trees on the Neovolcanic Plateau about 240 miles from Mexico City.
In 1976 Norah and Fred now in their sixties traveled to Mexico and hiked 10,000 feet up to the plateau to see the amazing reward of forty years of research they had done. They happened to be standing near a pine branch that crashed from the weight of the butterflies on it and in the cluster of monarchs at their feet, the Urquharts found one that bore one of their tags. It had been tagged in Minnesota before setting out on its trek to Mexico.
In August of 1976, an article about their research and discovery appeared in National Geographic and shared what Fred and Norah had discovered with the world. Since then more than 13 wintering sites for monarchs have been found and are protected as ecological reserves by the government of Mexico.
Fred and Norah Urquhart were given the Order of Canada in 1998 for their amazing discovery. Of course, Indigenous people in Mexico had known about the butterfly roosts for thousands of years.
In 2012 a movie called Flight of the Butterflies premiered starring Gordon Pinsent and Patricia Phillips as Fred and Norah.
So how could Joe the young boy in my story have known the butterflies were going to Mexico in 1907 if that fact wasn’t made public till 1976? Well, he probably couldn’t have.
Although I did tons of research for my book and my editor was great at helping me find historical errors we didn’t catch them all. My book has a mistake in it but I am almost glad it does because it led me to do all the research for this post and learn about Fred and Norah Urquhart, two Canadians I’d never heard of before.
I am sure I will find other mistakes as my book reaches a wider audience of discerning readers and I’m excited about what I might learn from those mistakes. Thanks, John for pointing this one out.