Saturday, November 6, 2021

Monarchs: How High Can They Fly?

monarchsMigrating Monarchs Soaring at Unbelievable Heights

Monarch Migration has been known to be one of nature’s most spectacular events.  Every Fall up to 500,000 monarchs leave the colder regions to seek solace in warmer areas throughout the United States as well as Mexico.  Many people here in the Adirondacks are aware of when they first see these beauties in early Summer and when they stop seeing them as fall sets in but have never witnessed the gathering of thousands of monarchs in preparation of their migrating group flight.

As Lepidopterists, every year beginning the second week of September we tag monarchs that we have saved from town mowing, then lovingly reared, tagged, and then released back to nature.  Tagging offers us a window into the time and location that monarchs migrate.  Through tagging we have learned that sub groups of monarchs have been known to separate from the mass or larger original group and have taken refuge in some non-traditional, warmer weather states here in the U.S. that are not regularly documented.

Tagged monarchs from here in the Adirondacks have been identified in Florida, Texas and Arizona as well as traditional areas in California and Mexico.  When it comes to butterflies, their behavior and migrating patterns can be altered due to weather, temperature, and available food sources that change on a whim throughout the country.  The only definite details about monarch migration are that they will surely migrate and that they must fly to get to their overwintering sites.  We have seen years when it was reported that the monarch population was in dire distress due to the fact, they did not inhabit a certain number of hectares in the mountains of Mexico, only to research and communicate with others around to country to find out that three times the number of monarchs appeared to be overwintering in Texas.

Whether these winged miracles are flying several hundred to several thousand miles to seek ample conditions for survival, these tiny flyers have the ability to fly 50-100 miles a day and have been spotted by passenger jets at over 19,000 feet during ascension.  It is believed that the monarchs flying at these astronomical heights can actually hitch a good glide on the jet stream, giving them a much-needed break from chronically flapping their wings, thus conserving precious energy.  This super generation, a name given to the last generation to emerge before migration time, emerge with larger wings then their earlier relatives.  A divine adaptation in the genetics of Monarchs, giving them a greater chance of survival and success with their labor-intensive migrating flight.

There is one sure thing when it comes to nature and all the wonderful creatures there in; unpredictability!  What is true one year, may not be true the next.  I believe that this is what makes nature the most interesting, there is always something new occurring to experience.  Nature is an eternally flowing river of amazement if you care to venture into the World of the Wild.

Jackie Woodcock photo

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Jackie Woodcock was born and lives in the Adirondack Mountains. She is an apiarist, lepidopterist, conservationist, teacher, writer, artist, and a co-owner of SkyLyfeADK. You can find her SkyLyfeADK on Instagram and Facebook.

18 Responses

  1. Ethan says:

    Lots of Monarch info thats new to me. Thanks!

  2. Noel A. Sherry says:

    Hi Jackie, I am a fan of the Monarch butterfly and fascinated by its migration in groups, its wintering in Mexico, and now by your info other spots in the S US. To think that they migrate in big groups (how many?) and get up into the jet stream is fascinating, amazing really. Thanks for the info. Nature is a wonder, in so many ways, the Monarch being right up there near the top. I observe them along our dirt roads at Twitchell Lake in Big Moose, NY, during the summer, usually in milkweed.

  3. Tim says:

    Very informative. Also, a good example why some news can be needlessly alarmist, i.e., the monarchs are disappearing because they aren’t seen in Mexico.

  4. I’m glad for your interest and dedication, but I would temper your enthusiasm a little. Monarchs are known to fly as high as 4000 ft, not 19,000 ft. If they survive, some monarchs from the Adirondacks make it to central Mexico or Florida, not the western U.S. (a very low percentage of tagged monarchs are ever recovered). Few monarchs overwinter in Texas and gulf coast states, which is far too few to influence the abundance of the next year’s population. The numbers that we see each year really do depend on the numbers that emerge at the end of winter from the Mexican overwintering colonies, in addition to that year’s weather conditions that allow the population to grow.

    I fully agree that nature is surprising and wonderful, and tagging monarchs does help us learn more about their migration. Thanks for doing that. But monarchs are amazing enough to stay with what really is known about their biology and migration.

    • Boreas says:


      I agree. If indeed Monarchs were found at 19,000 feet, I doubt they were flapping much. I suspect they would have been frozen or at least in torpor. Perhaps this alleged finding is part of their decline in numbers, since they migrate south to AVOID being frozen.

      The southern US overwintering adults could help save the species from a total collapse in Mexico, but their genetic makeup could still encourage migration to traditional Mexico locations. Are they simply under-achieving individuals, or is it a sub-population that is genetically programmed to return to Texas/Florida? I don’t know if this research has been done, but it should be done.

    • William says:

      I know they can fly to 11789′. I found one on top of the snow pack at the summit of Ophir Pass in Colorado. I have a picture somewhere of it. Its colors were striking against the snow.

  5. chris cohan says:

    Excellent article. Great information. It gives me hope for monarchs.

    However, I know we MUST DO MORE in the Adirondacks to ensure monarchs, hummingbirds, native bees and others thrive by preserving and greatly expanding native pollinator plantings..

    So, everyone plant pollinator plants next spring and encourage your localities to time and reduce roadside mowing – to save your tax dollars and Monarchs, too

  6. Lars H says:

    Thank you for the article.

    I find the multi generational life cycle of the monarchs fascinating and have sadly watched the numbers decline over the years. One of the most rewarding trips in my lifetime of world travel was to go to the overwintering location in Mexico and I recommend it to any who speaks a little Spanish.

    It’s not that hard. Fly to an alternative airport to Mexico City such as Queretaro, rent a car and get a hotel there. Then drive down and back the same day. I went on a weekend in early December a couple years back. While you may not want it, as you get close, there are guides who will help you find the right place at El Rosario. Once there, you must have a local guide to climb the trail to the hilltop location at about 10,000 ft elevation. You will never forget it!

  7. Siats says:

    Where did you get your information? I’ve noticed none of your articles have been appropriately cited to allow civilians to do more research or investigate your claims. This is very troubling, because it appears that you are parroting misinformation at the very least or outright, deliberately lying about a species that needs help as soon as possible.

  8. I agree with Siats that to avoid misinformation, one should be clear about the sources of claims. A correct, accepted, and documented source is Monarch Joint Venture, an umbrella organization that brings together government, public, and private organizations for monarch conservation. For a good review of monarch flight, go to:

    Monarchs can’t fly unless their flight muscles are at least 55 degrees F. Most flight is less than 2000 ft above the ground, but strong winds can carry them higher. One individual on a mountain snow pack did not result from intentional flight.

  9. Boreas says:


    Don’t get discouraged by our nit-picking on this article. Keep the articles coming!

    • Siats says:

      Maybe they should just cite their information instead of making things up. A simple Google search reveals that, according to multiple credible sources, they only reach ~11k feet. Not providing the truth isn’t helpful in a world where many people do not trust science. This isn’t nitpicking. It’s a problem, and responsible journalists should be held accountable.

      • Boreas says:


        Not all contributors to this publication are journalists.

        For all we know, the “19,000” foot quote was a typo. But regardless, there is much that can be swept on thermals into the jet stream. It doesn’t mean the monarchs tried to do it, or if they were even still alive. Once in the jet stream, they would likely be carried out into the Atlantic to die anyway. A passenger jet isn’t a good way to study butterflies, likely all they did was report seeing them.

        But I can forgive a misquote or a non-cited source from a regular contributor from time to time. I appreciate any wildlife/nature articles posted here.

        And if one is searching for scientific data, use Google Scholar, not the more pedestrian Google search.

  10. chris cohan says:

    With all the fact checking concern by some my questions is…
    What are you doing to help Monarchs?

    • Siats says:

      Lots, actually. I’m just not comfortable giving my real name on a website I am not familiar with.

  11. For ideas about how to help monarch conservation, please consult the Monarch Action List at this link:
    Expanding patches of native vegetation for all pollinators is one part of what’s needed.

    To learn more about monarchs, google and go to Monarch Joint Venture and Monarch Watch websites. I encourage those interested in conservation of the monarch overwintering grounds and migratory route to sign up for the scheduled Nov 16 webinar described at this link:
    I hope to see some of you there.

    It is heartening to see widespread interest in the conservation of monarchs and all pollinators.

  12. chris cohan says:


    You asked for responsible journalism and citing credible sources. So, of course we would all assume you would respond in kind by provide details which have nothing to do with your name.

  13. Harry Cleland says:

    What a true and wonderful fact. Thanks for sharing.

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