By Chris Faulkner
John Carter said he was about 10 or 12 years old when he encountered butterflies for the first time in his backyard.
Growing up, he lived on Hagemann Avenue on the east end of Burlington.
“We had gardens on the side (of the house). We had milkweeds there,” he said.
His mother sent him out to get some parsley from the garden, and he reported, “It’s full of bugs. I can’t find any parsley.”
The “bugs” were black swallowtail butterflies.
But the family also had bluebird boxes next to a grape arbor, so that was his focus for the longest time.
When Carter moved to the Flint Valley area in 1978, he began setting up birdhouses. He remembered the bluebirds of his youth and asked his new neighbors if they had ever seen any of them in the area.
They said no. He built the boxes anyway.
“Within four years, if you didn’t see any bluebirds, you were blind,” Carter said.
In 1995, his birdhouse hobby expanded when he retired as a pressman for the Hawk Eye. Then-editor John McCormally ran the For Our Birds store on Division Street and store manager Bob Francis asked Carter to help out at the store.
At one point, they ran out of oriole feeders and discovered they weren’t being made anymore. During his years working at the store, Carter made over 300 of them.
At one point, he had a trail of 54 birdhouses, but they became difficult to care for.
That was when he began revisiting the world of butterflies.
At the age of 92, he has his own monarch butterfly nursery.
Carter took up raising monarch butterflies four years ago, and this year is set to break his previous record of releasing 114 butterflies into the wild.
“Each year, it gets bigger and bigger,” Carter said.
For black swallowtails, he prefers starting from scratch.
“I would rather bring in the egg than a caterpillar because nine times out of 10 it’s compromised with some kind of disease or predator,” Carter said and the early stages are in his home.
“I bring the egg in on a piece of parsley,” and he prefers the Italian variety.
The egg is just a tiny white dot, and when hatched, it comes out as a caterpillar. But not the size people are used to seeing.
“It looks like a piece of bird poop,” he said. “It’s camouflaged so it doesn’t get eaten.”
Carter moves it to another box when it gets bigger than an inch-and-a-half long.
“When he gets ready to make a chrysalis, it expels some of its last meal, and I know he’s ready to move,” Carter said.
The caterpillar goes into another cage that has an obstacle course.
“They’ll build their cocoon on the obstacles, and I can move them wherever I want,” Carter said.
Some of the caterpillars that make their chrysalises in the fall need to “over winter,” so he puts them in a shed.
Outside in the backyard are three wooden boxes with wire cages that house the chrysalises until the butterfly breaks free.
On a particular day in August, Carter released 11 and said if you tagged them, you would find out how far they have flown.
For Carter, this isn’t only a retirement hobby. His controlled environment increases the survival rate of these colorful flying insects.
“If I find the egg, and the egg is fertile and it hatches, there is a 95 percent chance it is going to survive to a butterfly,” he said. “In the wild, there is a 5 percent chance it’s going to make a butterfly.”
According to Carter, he has inspired others to raise butterflies. He gave two cocoons to his neighbors, Deb and Joel Schwenker, and they eventually released those. That spurred them to take up the hobby, and then another neighbor got involved. Carter said a woman down the road also “got addicted,” and she got her grandson involved.
“It looks pretty,” he said of the butterflies, “and it has a lot to do with the environment. If we run out of insects, I don’t care what kind of insect it is, something’s going to happen.”