The tiger swallowtail butterfly is one of the most recognizable butterflies in the United States. They are large butterflies with a wingspan range of 3 inches to 5.6 inches. Adult tiger swallowtails are bright yellow, or yellow-orange, with black stripes on the front wings. Yellow spots speckle the black wing margins. Females are often black in areas of the North, with a faint tiger striping pattern.
The favored habitat of all tiger swallowtail butterflies is woodlands. They’re also found in grasslands, canyons and cities. These butterflies specifically enjoy deciduous woodland areas along swamps, streams and rivers. They are observed to be puddling, sipping water and nutrients from the stream.
The eastern tiger swallowtail’s habitat extends from New England through the west to the Great Lakes, through the Great Plains states and south to Texas and Florida, according to the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology. The western tiger swallowtail is found throughout Orange County, California among the canyons. A large colony lives on the University of California Irvine campus because there is a plethora of California sycamore. This tree is a larval food plant. They are also found in the suburbs, and in general are known to fly into any habitat.
Tiger swallowtail butterflies spend most of their time eating plant leaves. When resting they form a nest out of silk on a leaf, which makes the leaf curl. Before the pupal stage, tiger swallowtail caterpillars turn dark brown. According to the Butterfly and Gardening Conservation website, they often attach themselves to a stick to pupate.
The food source of the tiger swallowtail butterfly varies from species to species, and depends on their specific habitat. After hatching, the first food they eat is their eggshell. Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly larvae feed on plant leaves, such as birch, tulip, wild cherry, cottonwood, willow and ash. Adult eastern tiger swallowtails sip nectar from flowers. They favor the abelia shrub’s pink flowers. Larval food plants for the western tiger swallowtail are the willow and California sycamore.
As a caterpillar, the tiger swallowtail butterfly looks like bird droppings. This camouflage helps protect it from predators. In the adult stage its dark eye spots make it look like a snake, often deterring predators. Though it is not a poisonous butterfly, it does mimic the pipevine butterfly, which makes predators feel sick and vomit. This association helps protect the tiger swallowtail butterfly.