Peacock butterfly disturbed during hibernation making anti predatory noise-video

March 29, 2013

in A selection of my garden wildlife videos, Gardening For Wildlife, Insects

Anti predatory behaviour of hibernating and hissing peacock butterfly (video below)

Many people I speak to and teach do not realise that some species of butterfly here in the UK actually hibernate as a butterfly. Those that do include the comma, peacock, brimstone, small tortoiseshell and I have seen adult cabbage whites hibernating inside my garage roof. Most hibernate as an egg, pupa  or caterpillar. One adult hibernating butterfly is the peacock butterfly (Inachis io), which can hibernate for seven to eight months. How does it manage not to become a prey item, even when hibernating?  With its rusty red base coloured wings and its distinctive four eye spots it can often be found near stinging nettles, upon which its caterpillars feed. Not withstanding current weather conditions and trends, this gloriously coloured butterfly is a regular garden visitor, although over the past few years I have not seen anywhere near as many as I usually do. The colours may appear beautiful to us, but to the peacock it is a just one part of its life saving strategy, which as an adult can live for 11 months, has to be successful to avoid predation.

Anti predator survival strategies

Even though they are soft bodied and in the main slow moving, butterflies have numerous ways to escape becoming a tasty morsel for other species, for example birds. These could include, flight, camouflage, mimicry, shape, being distasteful, defensive marking and hibernation. Even sound as you will see in the video below. Hibernation poses different problems in that the butterfly is static and therefore cannot fly away. In the main they rely on crypsis, i.e. avoid being found. Peacock butterflies mimic a dead leaf. Brimstones, commas and small tortoiseshells fall into this category.

Hibernating peacock butterfly inside a tyre

Behind my shed and under a roof were two dry tyres, inside one of which I found this peacock butterfly hibernating! Note its dead leaf like colour and shape. They usually hibernate in dark crevices, holes in trees and inside hollow trees. I have found them on the roof of my garage and in sheds. But never a tyre!

Peacock mimicry

If you invert a photograph of a peacock butterfly with its wings fully open, you will see that its body resembles that of a bird’s beak in shape and colour. The ‘eyes’ are correctly positioned either side of the beak, making it look more like an owl looking out from behind the larger forewings. Even the shape resembles an owl’s head, with its two small ear tufts on the ‘top’ of its head. Remarkable!

Peacock butterfly or owl?


When it lands on plants etc., its wings are closed and even when basking will open and close its wings if it feels threatened. When closed the underside camouflage looks like either a dead leaf or tree bark, especially when it has landed on a tree trunk. If a bird did go to investigate a sudden flash of the peacocks wings would soon act to deter most birds! A harmless dead leaf or tree bark turns into an owl!

Camouflage to bluffing shock tactic.

Researchers undertook some fascinating work on this very aspect. Leaf mimicking butterfly species, comma, small tortoiseshells and peacocks were placed into a large cage along with some blue tits, which will eat butterflies. The coma relied on being the most perfect leaf mimic as its only defence, never revealing itself by opening its wings. Which worked for a while as it was the last species to be discovered. BUT nearly 75% were eaten. The small tortoiseshell was more conspicuous than the coma and did open and close its wings, but the wing pattens are not as stark a shock as that of the peacocks and it did not open up as many times as a peacock. Consequently more than 90% were eaten! The peacock fared best, by keeping  still and remaining cryptic until the bird was almost upon it suddenly and with more frequency flashes its ‘owl’ wings and by making a hissing sound ensured it had 100% survival. A much more aggressive and intimidating defence than the other two species. In later research the same team found that when some of the eye spots were painted out, birds more readily ate the peacock butterflies except those ones that had full spots and displayed the intimidating behaviour as described.

What to do next?

Once the startled bird, instead of finding a meal finds itself to be a potential meal flies away, then what does the peacock do once it has revealed itself? It adopts one of three behaviours. Either keep its wings open but motionless fully exposing the ‘owl’. Continue to flick its wings with some butterflies seen during wing flicking, to tilt its body to rotate and match the movement of the bird possibly to increase its intimidating effect. In other words my eyes are watching you! Lastly it could remain still with its wings closed  reverting back to its dead leaf camouflage.

Chickens afraid of peacock butterflies! 

Olofsson also found that even domesticated chickens were fooled by the ‘owl’ face when confronted by the peacock butterfly undertaking its defence strategy. The chickens became more wary, more vigilant and more likely to utter alarm calls associated with ground based predators and suggested that this was based on fear of predation rather than a fear of conspicuous patterns.

I moved the butterfly into the garage for safe keeping. You can clearly hear it making a rasping noise with its wings. It is not a hissing noise. It is likely that the wing flicks and hissing noises deters birds with the exposure of the ‘owl’. Olofsson and his team found the peacock butterfly produces sonic and ultrasonic sounds when hibernating in its dark wintering sites when encountered by mice who will eat hibernating butterflies. Flashing its wings to show the ‘owl’ simply would not work in the dark. The sound made the mice flee and those that had their sound disabled the mice did not flee. The peacock butterfly then shows different defence strategies when discovered by different potential predators at different times throughout the year.

For more information about our lovely butterflies visit Butterfly Conservation you can join here and help them with their work. You may also like this article written by Richard Fox of Butterfly Conservation..Toughest butterfly on the block 

“All my articles and videos, available free, are funded by my  teaching and sales of award winning bumblebee nest boxessolitary bee boxes,  and wormeries. Please help by spreading the word and forwarding this link to your friends and colleagues.  Thank you” George Pilkington


Besides my own experiences and observations:

Olofsson M et al (2012) ” Auditory defence in the peacock butterfly (Inachis io) against mice (Apodemus flavicollis and A. sylvaticus)” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, p 209-215

Olofsson M et al (2013) “Eyespot display in the peacock butterfly triggers antipredator behaviors in naive adult fowl’, Behavioral Ecology V 24 p 305-310

Thomas J & Lewington R, (2010) ” The Butterflies of Britain and Ireland” British Wildlife Publishing, Milton on Stour, Gillingham, Dorset.

Villin A et al. (2005)  “Crypsis versus intimidation-anti predation defence in three closely related butterflies” Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology V 59, p 455-459

Villin A et al. (2005) “Prey survival by predator intimidation: an experimental study of peacock butterfly defence against blue tits” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, Biological Sciences 272: 1203-1207.P

Photograph of ‘owl’ wings courtesy of Roy and Marie       with thanks

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat Jones March 30, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I have a number of buddleah bushes but I have noticed that in the last few years butterflies have become less and less in my garden. It is so sad that they are slowly disappearing.


nurturingnature March 30, 2013 at 6:29 pm

You are right. Scientist who study and research butterflies have noticed a dramatic decline in many butterflies, so you are confirming their findings in your garden.


Colette Mullen December 7, 2013 at 1:10 am

My cat had found a peacock butterfly. Lucky I did manage to retrieve it unharmed. But now unsure what to do to help it back into hibernation? I’ve got it kept safe. Not wanting to let free as sure it wouldn’t survive. Please any suggestions would be greatly appreciated thank you.


nurturingnature December 7, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Hi Colette, Take the butterfly outside and into the shed, garage, outhouse or similar where it is cool, after you have dissolve fructose or sugar in warm water, leave to cool and place a small amount in front of the butterfly ensuring not to have any touch its body or wings. If it does n’t feed, put it out of harms way, particularly out of reach from mice, perhaps on the inside of an outhouse roof and leave it there. Cheers George


Sheila December 17, 2013 at 9:37 pm

Thank you for such an interesting piece. I write a nature column for a local paper and want to feature Peacocks next year. You may be interested to see a pic I took of a communal hibernating roost in our stable.


nurturingnature December 19, 2013 at 9:15 pm

Hi Sheila’, thanks for your comments. Yes please do send me your photo, I may even add it to the article if it is suitable, with credit of course. Thanks. George


melanie January 24, 2014 at 10:31 pm

Hello I have had a butterfly hibernating in my bedroom for about six weeks. I put her in a little box and then into a bigger box and kept the room dark. I put in some fresh grapes every day as well as sugar and water solution on tissue just in case she did wake up from her inactive stage. She has been perched on the side of the small inner box for weeks whilst hibernating. I came in this morning and she’s now on her side. She is a peacock so the underside of her wings look like black paper. I’m wondering if she is still alive with her being on her side. How can I tell? I love her so much and want to do the best for her. Please help. I’ve asked everyone but no-one seems to know. Thank you


nurturingnature January 25, 2014 at 6:09 pm

Hi Melanie. Thanks for contacting me. glad you find my article! This is a difficult one.All the peacocks I have seen in the past have been sitting on their legs. That is not too say that if the wind blows them or they are knocked over during hibernation, that they are dead. It could still be asleep, a deep sleep so unlikely to wake itself up just to upright itself again! This weather , which although has been wetter than usual, certainly has not been freezing cold. In fact on some days it has been almost spring like in terms of temperatures. Colder temp keeps hibernating insects in astute of hibernation whereby they use their resources of fat more slowly. If the temp rises, they tend to use more in the belief that spring is on its way and they will soon be able to replenish those reserves.I would put it somewhere colder if possible, but away from the frost/ice which can damage their cell structures.Leave it there and keep an eye on it. The weather has not helped. I have already seen two dead hedgehogs in the road…. awoken by higher temps than normal to be killed by a car. 🙁 Cheers George


Amelie March 3, 2014 at 7:00 pm

I am looking after a Peacock butterfly. I have put it in a cardboard shoe box with a large enough opening if it wants to leave. It’s in a very cool part of our home near a window but away from direct sunlight.

As its the beginning of March, the butterfly has started to move about a little, but its not quite warm enough to let it outside.

Shall I wait a little later into March to free it?
And do I need to feed it whist its hibernating?
Thank you


nurturingnature March 3, 2014 at 7:58 pm

Hi Amelie, I found another hibernating peacock the other day that was outside against my garage wall which is well sheltered by the shed. It was moving slightly. I left it and it had gone the next day. I have seen a few peacocks sunning themselves. If possible I would put it in a sheltered area outside away from mice and spiders webs that you often get in garages, shed,s etc. It will then be able to leave whenever it wants. HTH, Cheers George


Paul August 5, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Fascinating information in this web site.
I am familiar with reports of declining butterfly numbers, certainly in my youth every clump of nettles contained caterpillars. We have a small orchard maintained to encourage wildlife and butterflies, with extensive areas of nettles but it was only this year, after over 18 years of waiting, that we have seen caterpillars on the nettles. Three groups early in the year followed by a second single collection in the last month. There appears to be far more butterflies around in north Kent this year than previously
What surprises me is that dispite the hot weather many are now finding their way into our attic space where they regularly hibernate. The present weather is warm and barmy yet butterfly sites correlate hibernation with temperature. Why are they preparing now for hibernation?


nurturingnature August 7, 2014 at 9:18 pm

Paul will get back to you. Cheers George


nurturingnature August 15, 2014 at 7:12 pm

Thanks for your welcome comment! Only the other day I found a small tortoiseshell in an area under cover inside some large pipes where I have found them before ‘hibernating’. It is a dark, dry sheltered location. Its wings were closed and it was motionless, dry area. It was a very hot sunny day! It is about a month or so early and presumably was in the early stages? I assume yours are peacocks or small tortoiseshells? If they ar hibernating it could be that they as well fed and have amassed enough fat to enter ‘hibernation’ a lot sooner than usual due to the weather. As they have accumulated fat and not muscles they are slower at flying with the extra weight. That would make them more liable to be predated by birds. So it may be a good strategy to start now, less likelihood of being caught by a bird or other predator perhaps? Cheers George


Vicki October 12, 2014 at 5:00 pm

We have a butterly in our en-suite bathroom that has been motionless for just over three weeks now. I am no butterfly expert but it looks like a dead leaf. It’s on the wall in the corner by the window.
Will we harm it if we touch it’s wings by picking it off the wall and putting it somewhere safer? Or should we just leave it alone? I’ve turned the radiators off both in the en suite and in the bedroom.
Any advice would be welcome.

Many thanks



nurturingnature October 13, 2014 at 6:51 am

Hi Vicky,

Find a cardboard/shoe box with lid and cut a narrow slit in a side wall and some air holes. gently place or coax it into it, then take it outdoors to a garage, porch,shed or outhouse, away from damp,light and full sun, dry and place it there out of reach of mice. The butterfly will most likely stay inside the dry box and if it survives the winter,it will need to find the way out so leave a window open in early spring. HTH. Cheers, George


s waller March 9, 2015 at 8:41 pm

We found a peacock butterfly in the cold yesterday , unable to fly on a cold day.
We carefully brought it home, made a sugar syrup drink for it and housed it in a shoebox with holes in it.
It’s still as cold outside, when should we release her. If I take the box outside it might be fooled by the warmth of the sun again.


nurturingnature March 11, 2015 at 7:42 am

Hi, I think it ould be safe to place it outside now on a sunny day if possible. It will warm up fly to find food and will find somewhere to shelter if it gets cold. Keeping it indoors now may not be a good idea. Make sure birds and mice don’t find it outside when you place it there in the box. Cheers, George


Mandy March 26, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Hi, I found a small tortoishell which had been disturbed in our block of flats in the hallway. It didnt want any sugar solution and has settled in a box in our cupboard in the hallway. Its been moving around slightly but just shifting position a bit. We have outside rubbish areas which have a sheltered corner and there are still hibernating butterflies in there. Today I saw a brimstone flying around but all the hibernating onesIin our flats are staying put! I’m checking frequently on the tortoishell as theres no way out of the cupboard and I dont want to disturb it again. Should I wait for the outside butterflies to leave and put it in my garden at the same time? We had frost yesterday. Theres nowhere I can leave it to find its own way out. Many tks


nurturingnature March 26, 2015 at 5:15 pm

I have seen a small tortoiseshell on the wing already…. Cut you not cut an oblong shaped exit for the butterfly in one of the side walls? Could you take thew butterfly outside to where the others are hibernating and coax it onto your finger at dusk, with no bright sunlight and allow it to crawl to where the others are? Then you could do as you suggest when the others leave. HTH cheers, George


lucy March 31, 2015 at 6:19 am

I found a peacock butterfly outside in the rain and moved it into the shed and gave it half an overripe pear which it seemed to be drinking from. This morning it is lying on its side and appears dead- could the pear have killed it?


nurturingnature April 6, 2015 at 10:14 am

I doubt it Lucy. Is it definitely dead? If so, likely it was on its last legs anyway. HTH, George


sarah March 3, 2016 at 10:17 pm

Loved youre article. We’ve had a peacock butterfly in our house since Saturday we keep thinking it’s dead but it keeps moving even though it looks completely dead with its legs bent beneath it. Tonight we told our daughter it had died as it’s wings were flat out and it was upside down we put it upright on a piece of paper for her to see how beautiful it was . She didn’t want it to go in the bin. It’s turned itself over and shut it’s wings now. Going to find it a shoebox for it now


nurturingnature March 4, 2016 at 9:47 pm

Hi Sarah, what a lovely story! Thanks for sharing. George


Lesley July 6, 2016 at 10:24 am

Hi, I do a butterfly survey for a local country park, and have noticed a dramatic decline over the last five years. I make insect hibernaculae for round my garden, and want to do some for moths and butterflies. Do they hibernate with wings open or closed? The answer will help me decide what to fill the inside of the tubs with.


nurturingnature July 6, 2016 at 4:00 pm

Lesley, the only ones I have ever found have all had their wings closed to minimise being found I suppose. It may be an idea to contact butterfly conservation who would be better equipped to answer. HTH, Cheers, George


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: