Chico’s butterfly brigade

Don Miller takes a count that counts

Photo By Sarah Kelly

Don Miller chased butterflies as a young boy in Syracuse, N.Y., and is still chasing them decades later in Butte County. Miller, an associate professor at Chico State, established the first official butterfly census here earlier this month for the North American Butterfly Association. He estimates there are about 100 butterfly species in the Chico area, a signal of vitality for the region’s environment.

How did you get involved with the butterfly count?

I’ve been watching butterflies since I was 4. The count is a little more organized than chasing them around with coffee cans like I used to. Officially I’ve been involved with butterflies for 15 years, when I started at Berkeley.

What is the goal of this project?

I collect all the results and send them into the North American Butterfly Association. The goal is to try to track butterfly populations over time to see how the environment is doing. Butterflies are good indicators of the health of the environment. It’s really neat to do it. It makes me happy to do that kind of thing.

How many years have you been doing the count in Chico?

I launched the count this year for the first time in Chico. It’s actually the second year, but last year [it] was just myself and two other biologists at the lower end of Big Chico Creek. This year was the first full-blown count with eight people involved. All of them had experience with biology in some capacity, and three of them had never done a count before.

Is it hard work?

It’s fun, but, you know, you have to keep it up all day. You have to be alert all day and watch everything that flies by and try to identify it. The differences between some butterflies are really tiny.

How do you know you didn’t count the same butterfly twice?

You have to have a sample area. When you do a loop and you’re not retracing your path, and you see a species of butterfly and a little while later you see another butterfly of that same species, you can assume it’s a different butterfly and you can count it. It’s only an assumption. We are way underestimating anyway. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

What is your favorite part of the butterfly count?

I think it’s really fun to go out with a party of motivated people and to find a rare butterfly. When we were doing the count at Cohasset, we came to a corner where there were about a dozen butterflies of a rare species. That’s not a species many people are going to find around the country, and they’re right here in Butte County.