Colourful butterflies and moths: Distasteful to birds?

on 3rd June 2008

Butterflies and moths are regularly fed upon by birds. Once caught between the bill, the birds often flick the insect to remove the wings before swallowing the body. The image below (right) shows a bee-eater handling either a butterfly or a moth, with wing parts flying off towards the lelt of the image. The image on the left shows an Asian Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi) with a butterfly in its bill. Again, parts of the wings have been damaged.


It has been shown that the caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feed on milkweed (Asclepias spp.) that contains cardiac glycosides. The caterpillars store these glycosides as well as pass them on to the adults. Birds find Monarch butterflies distasteful, vomiting shortly after eating a monarch caterpillar or adult. The experience is usually so traumatic that the bird will avoid such insects, even insects that look like it.


Most of our attractive birdwings, belonging to the family Papilionidae, that inlcude Common Birdwing (Troides helena), Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae), Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus), Common Mormon (Papilio polytes) and Great mormon (P. memnon) are poisonous or distasteful.

Although the caterpillars of some of the above butterflies feed on plants containing alkaloids that may be poisonous or distasteful to birds, those of Lime Butterfly and possibly mormon (above) feed mainly on citrus leaves that may be harmless. So the big question is whether these butterflies are actually distasteful to birds or is mimicry involved?

Steven Chong
: “Generally the Papilio family except Common Rose ie Common Birdwing (Troides helena), Lime Butterfly (Papilio demoleus), Common Mormon (P. polytes) and Great Mormon (P. memnon) …are not distasteful to birds. But the Danainae family or nowadays called Nymphalidae overall, which include the Monarch and milkweed butterflies are the poisonous models because as mentioned correctly, due to the poisonous sap found in milkweed plants. Even Common Rose these days are taken by birds I wonder if they have adapted to the taste, the subject of some discussion ie why they are taken.

“…forgot Common Birdwing should be considered poisonous, as both feeds also on Aristolochia tagala. BIG chairmain Simon Chan thinks Common Rose ‘nowadays maybe the birds have to eat the poisonous ones too because of lack of things to eat. Personally, in addition to Simon’s, I suspect different birds have different tolerant levels in their stomachs and some will eat, others avoid.”

YC Wee & Steven Chong
June 2008
Images by Johnny Wee (bee-eater), Chan Yoke Meng (flycatcher) and YC (butterfly).

Huheey, J.E. (1984). [‘Warning coloration and mimicry’]. Pp. 257-300 in Bell, W.J. & Carde, R.T. (eds.) Chemical ecology of insects. New York: Chapman & Hall.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

11 Responses

  1. Nice shots of the birds with the lepidoptera victims. The Asian Paradise Flycatcher is making a meal out of a female Green Baron (Euthalia adonia). The BeeEater’s meal is too mauled up to be recognised.

    No, the Citrus eaters are not distasteful to predators. The Lime Butterfly is vulnerable and has no mimicry nor any other protection. It just escapes via its strong flight. The Common Mormon has a female form which mimics the Common Rose for protection. The Great Mormon, which has several female forms, mimic many species of the Atrophaneura and Pachliopta species, many of which feed on Aristolochiacea. The one featured here is a female form-distantianus, which mimics the distasteful Common Clubtail (Pachliopta coon) for protection.

  2. Pingback: papilio demoleus
  3. Few published research articles pointed out that trodine butterflies are unpalatable to predatory birds (Nishida, 1994/1995; Klitzke & Brown, 2000; Mebs & Schneider, 2002). These butterflies include Atrophaneura alcinous, Troides aecus, T. amphrysus, T. helen, T. magellanus, T. rhadamantus, Pachliopta aristolochiae, P. coon, P. neptunus, Trogonoptera brookiana…etc. Their body tissues contain different types of aristolochic acids except T. helen with unidentified phytochemicals which may not seem to exhibit toxicity to birds but clearly shown to be distasteful to predatory birds.

    Nishida, R. (1994/1995). Sequestration of plant secondary compounds by butterflies and moths. Chemoecology 5/6, 3/4: 127-138.

    Klitzke, C. F. & K. S. Brown Jr. (2000). The occurrence of aristolochic acids in neotropical troidine swallowtails (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae). Chemoecology 10: 99-102.

    Mebs, D. & M. Schneider (2002). Aristolochic acid content of South-east Asian troidine swallowtails (Lepidoptera: Papilionidae) and of Aristolochia plant species (Aristolochiaceae). Chemoecology 12: 11-13.

  4. I have seen Black-thighed Falconet devouring a male Great Eggfly.

    Talking about taste, actually birds generally have very poor sense of smell and therefore likely poor sense of taste as well, it is more likely some chemical reactions are causing the birds to reject some food rather than based on taste itself.

    1. How do you know birds have poor sense of taste? What types of chemical reactions causing the birds to reject some food than based on taste? Any books or publications you are referring to?

    2. Talking about taste receptors of birds. Please refer to the following books regarding avain taste behaviour:

      1. Herman Berkhoudt. (1985). Structure and function of avain taste receptors. In: Form & Function in Birds, volume 3, edited by A.S. King & J. Mclelland, Academic Press. Chapter 9: 463-496.

      2. Bernice, M. Wenzel (1973). Chemoreception. In: Avian Biology, volume III, edited by Donald S. Farner, James R. King & Kenneth C. Parkes, Academic Press. Chapter 6: 389-411.

      3. G. Causey Whittow (2000). Sturkie’s Avian Physiology. Fifth edition.
      Chapter 3: The chemical senses in birds, page 39-56.

      All the above three books concluded that birds have a sense of taste, and also comment on the responses to sweet, salt, sour, bitter and other chemicals.

      Teo T P

  5. In Vane Wright and Ackery ed, 1984, The Biology of Butterflies, Turner has an article on the palatability spectrum – a very large number of butterflies are doubtless distasteful to some degree – caper and brassica eating whites, citrus eating swallowtails and so on. Neorina lowii seems to be a Batesian mimic of P. polytes, for example. I have seen Australian magpies eviscerate Papilio aegeus larvae before eating them, but Noisy Miners simply gobble them up – the latter also glean small Ornithoptera larvae – So there is not just a palatability spectrum, but a sensitivity spectrum on the part of predators – The toughest in Australia seem to be generalist honeyeater/insectivores – surprisingly Drongos seem more sensitive – Merops are presumably sensitive too but I have never seen them take a putatively distasteful butterfly (although web photos showing them with captured, but not necessarily swallowed Belenois and Tirumala exist) – Inverts predators also vary – Nephila are very sensitive to PAs and reject by taste, but mouse spiders are not bothered at all – but I have seen them eat all but the red part of the abdomen of male Cressida – much the same as in Pachliopta but more isolated

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