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Apr 23, 2009  |  Vote 0    0

Norah Urquhart a pioneer in monarch butterfly research

Work on migration pattern called 'entomological discovery of the 20th century'

East York Mirror

Norah Urquhart, along with her husband Fred, put Scarborough on the map when it came to the monarch butterfly.

It was from their home on Military Trail that the two began tagging the beautiful insects in an effort to answer the question: where did the colourful butterfly disappear to in the winter? The discovery of a mountain area in Mexico covered with the orange butterflies in 1975 answered that question and led to the Urquhart's work being recognized as the entomological discovery of the 20th century.

The determined couple left a legacy for generations of nature lovers and scientists.

Norah Urquhart passed away March 13 in Pickering at the age of 90.

In their more than 40 years of work rearing, tagging and studying migration patterns of the monarch, the Urquharts enlisted the help of more than 4,000 groups and individuals to help them tag and track the butterfly across Canada and beyond.

"They had a very loyal following. Some people tagged for a year, but many tagged for five, 10 or 15 years," said Don Davis, who contacted the Urquharts in 1967.

Originally from Coburg, Davis said he had a natural interest in the environment from his rural upbringing and thought tagging butterflies would be a simple way to get involved with a nature activity.

The Urquharts began their work with very little support and as the ranks of volunteers grew they were very appreciative.

"They were very encouraging, very supportive. They readily contacted us when one of our butterflies was found," Davis said.

Urquhart also kept everyone informed through a regular newsletter. Her husband may have been the scientist, but they were a true team.

"I was just delighted when they were both appointed to the Order of Canada because she worked as hard as he did," Davis said. "She was a master organizer."

The Urquharts married in 1945 and moved to Scarborough in 1947.

On their two acres on Military Trail in Highland Creek she grew vegetables, kept chickens and even had a golden brown horse.

"She had this beautiful horse she treated almost like a pet dog," Davis recalled.

He remembered her as a very happy person.

Beginning in the early 1950s, the Urquharts began to tag butterflies in Scarborough and track their flight paths with the help of volunteers they co-ordinated across Canada and the United States. In 1952, Norah wrote a magazine article titled "Marked Monarchs" that contained an appeal for volunteers to assist in the tagging program.

Initially, just 12 people responded who would become the International Migration Association. But, by 1971, the Association had grown to include six hundred volunteers with thousands more participating. In 1972, she wrote to newspapers in Mexico about the project and asked for volunteers to report sightings and help with tagging.

A young American engineer responded from Mexico City. He spent the next year driving around the mountains of Mexico and in January 1975 he called the Urquharts to let them know he'd found millions of monarchs in the Neovolcanic Plateau. Early in 1976, the Urquharts, climbed the "Mountain of Butterflies" to view the spectacular reward for 40 years of research. They slowed down on their work in 1992, but Davis said they continued to tag in remote locations.

Fred passed away in 2002.

In an e-mail about his mother's achievements, Doug Urquhart wrote: "This discovery lead to the preservation by the Mexican government of a number of sites and to joint co-operative agreements between Canada and Mexico...Their work is internationally recognized as the 'entomological discovery of the 20th century.' Many books have been written on the subject of the monarch migration and it continues to inspire countless students who still participate in tagging programs."

Davis, who was part of a small group who celebrated Norah's 90th birthday with her, said he told her how she was amazed at how this little butterfly inspired so many people.

Tagging and conservation work continues and the Urquharts have received many honours, including having Canada's first municipal butterfly garden named in their honour. Construction on the Urquhart Butterfly Garden in Dundas, Ontario began in 1994.

"It all started with a little house on Military Trail and a little tagging program," Davis said. "It's the end of an era with the passing of this remarkable lady...They were truly pioneers."

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