27 Common Butterflies Found in California! (ID Guide)

What kinds of butterflies can you find in California?”

Common Butterflies in California

I love watching butterflies in my neighborhood! It’s amazing to see the incredible variety of different colors, patterns, and sizes.

There are hundreds of kinds of butterflies in California! Since it would be impossible to list them all in one article, I chose the most common and exciting species to share with you today. 🙂

Today, you’ll learn about 27 kinds of butterflies found in California.

#1. Red Admiral

  • Vanessa atalanta

Types of Butterflies found in California

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Red Admirals have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.
  • The coloring is dark brown with a reddish circular band and white spots. The underside of the back wings looks similar to bark.
  • The caterpillars are pinkish-gray to charcoal with white spots. They have spines along the back that resemble hairs.


The Red Admiral is the most widespread butterfly in California!


Look for this beautiful butterfly near the edge of forests in moist habitats. Red Admiral Butterflies have a unique favorite food – they love fermented fruit! If you’d like to attract them, try placing overripe cut fruit in a sunny spot in your yard.

Red Admirals are migratory butterflies. They fly south toward warmer climates in winter, and then move north again in late spring, where food is more plentiful.


If you’re looking for a butterfly in California that’s easy to observe, you’re in luck! Red Admirals are very calm and easy to approach and frequently land on humans!


#2. Painted Lady

  • Vanessa cardui

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Painted Lady butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.
  • The coloring is pinkish-orange, with dark brown to black markings near the wingtips and white spots inside the black markings.
  • The caterpillars’ coloring is variable, ranging from greenish-yellow to charcoal. Most have light-colored spots.


Look for Painted Lady butterflies in California in open areas that are quiet and undisturbed, like roadsides, pastures, and gardens. This species migrates south to Mexico over winter and returns in the spring.

The population of Painted Lady butterflies can be drastically different from year to year. It’s common for them not to be seen for years in a row in some places, then suddenly show up in more significant numbers.


The Painted Lady is the only butterfly that mates year-round! Because of its constant migration pattern, it spends its entire life in suitable areas for its eggs to hatch.


#3. Monarch

  • Danaus plexippus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Monarch butterflies have a wingspan of 3.5 to 4 inches.
  • Their recognizable coloring is a “stained glass” pattern of orange with black veins. White dots line the outside edge of the wings.
  • Caterpillars are plump, with black, white, and yellow bands and tentacles on each end of its body.


Monarchs are easily the most recognized butterfly in California!


They are famous for their color pattern and migration. Look for Monarchs anywhere there is milkweed, which is the only food source their caterpillars eat.

Most people are familiar with the declining population of Monarchs. However, you might not know that this indicates an overall population decline of many other pollinating species like bees. Planting local milkweed species to attract Monarchs will also help these other species.


During migration, usually in mid-September, you may even see groups of hundreds flying south!


#4. American Lady

  • Vanessa virginiensis

Identifying Characteristics:

  • American Lady Butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.5 inches.
  • The coloring of this species is a brilliant orange with dark borders and markings and white and purple spots. The underwings have an ornate pattern similar to a cobweb.


Look for American Lady butterflies in California near open landscapes with leafy, flowering plants.

On the underside of the wings, American Lady butterflies have eyespots. These circular markings make the butterfly look intimidating to predators, warding off potential danger.


Eyespots aren’t unique to butterflies – moths, other insects, and even some fish species display this evolutionary defense strategy!


Additionally, American Lady butterflies are nervous and will often take flight at the slightest disturbance.

#5. Mourning Cloak

  • Nymphalis Antiopa

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Mourning Cloaks have a wingspan of 3 to 4 inches.
  • The coloring is black with an iridescent sheen. A yellow border and a row of purple spots mark the outer edge of the wings.
  • Caterpillars are black with white specks and a row of red spots on the back.


Mourning Cloak butterflies are most often found near deciduous forests. However, their habitat includes many developed areas like suburban yards, parks, and golf courses.


You might have a hard time finding this butterfly in California.


Even though it’s fairly widespread, its preference for cold weather and solitary habits make it hard to spot even for an avid butterfly enthusiast! In addition, it’s so well-camouflaged when its wings are folded that you might miss one right in front of you.

Mourning Cloaks are often the first butterflies to become active in the spring! In fact, some adults are even active through winter on warm days, when snow is still on the ground.


They’re also one of the longest-lived butterflies around, with some individuals living up to ten months!


#6. Great Spangled Fritillary

  • Speyeria cybele

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Great Spangled Fritillary butterflies have a wingspan of 2.5 to 3.5 inches.
  • Their coloring is orange with black lines and dots that form a web-like pattern on their wings. In addition, the undersides of their wings have silvery white dots outlined in black.


The Great Spangled Fritillary is one of many butterflies in California that prefers open, sunny areas like pastures and meadows.


It’s not uncommon to see hundreds of them in large milkweed or violet fields!

This species doesn’t migrate; instead, its caterpillars hibernate over winter and emerge in the spring. That happens around the same time as the new growth on their host violet plants appears.


Interestingly, male Great Spangled Fritillaries die weeks before females, right after mating. The females then feed for another two to three weeks and lay eggs before also dying off.

#7. Common Wood-Nymph

  • Cercyonis pegala

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Common Wood-Nymphs have a wingspan of 2 to 3 inches.
  • Coloring can vary greatly, but generally, this species is shades of brown with dark eyespots.
  • Caterpillars are yellow-green with dark green stripes and white hairs.


Common Wood-Nymphs are found in many different habitats, including open forests, meadows, agricultural fields, and salt marshes. Their caterpillars hatch late in fall and hibernate through the winter.

Look for this species in late summer and early fall since it’s most active this time of year.


Adult Common Wood-Nymphs occasionally eat flower nectar but prefer to feed on rotting fruit or decaying plants.


This is one of few species whose host plant (which the caterpillar eats) is grass. Kentucky Bluegrass, one of its favorites, is also a popular lawn grass. So, you may not even need to plant anything new to attract this species!


#8. American Snout

  • Libytheana carinenta

Identifying Characteristics:

  • American Snout butterflies have a wingspan of 1.5 to 2 inches.
  • The coloring is brown with orange and white patches that resemble a dead leaf. In addition, the upper side of the wings is more heavily patterned and darker in color.


One look at this strange butterfly, and you’ll know why it’s called the American Snout! This species’ long, beak-like “snout” is used as camouflage, making the butterfly look more leaf-like.


There are no other butterflies in California with this feature!


Even though American Snout butterflies migrate north every year, they’re generally rare in most of their habitat and hard to find because of their excellent camouflage. When they are seen, it’s often in huge migratory groups that are so massive they can darken the sky!

#9. Eastern Tailed-Blue

  • Cupido comyntas

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Eastern Tailed-Blue butterflies have a wingspan of 0.75 to 1 inch.
  • Males and females have very different coloring on their upper wings. Males are brilliant blue with a brown border and white edges, and females are grayish-brown with white edges. Both sexes have one or two small orange spots above the wing tails.


Look for Eastern Tailed-Blue butterflies in northern California in vacant lots, pastures, and home gardens.


They’re one of our most abundant species and easily attracted to flowers.

The easiest way to identify Eastern Tailed-Blues is by their hair-like tails on each of the hind wings. But, these often break off, so you may find some individuals without tails.


The silvery-blue color of the underside of their wings is another good sign that you’ve found an Eastern Tailed-Blue.


#10. Gray Hairstreak

  • Strymon melinus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Gray Hairstreak butterflies have a wingspan of 1 to 1.5 inches.
  • Their coloring is slate gray with a single bright orange spot on each lower wing. Below, their wings are light gray with a black and white stripe.


Look for Gray Hairstreak butterflies in open areas like roadsides, unused pasture, and rural meadows. Their caterpillars use many plants as hosts, so they’re common across many different habitats.

Gray Hairstreaks are one of a few butterflies in California with thin, long wing tails that resemble hairs.


This adaptation is a defensive strategy that draws predators away from the butterfly’s body. By mimicking a head with antennae and using its eyespots as a distraction, Gray Hairstreaks give themselves time to escape!


#11. Black Swallowtail

  • Limenitis archippus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Black Swallowtails have a wingspan of 2.5 to 4.25 inches.
  • The coloring is black with rows of light yellow spots. It has one red-orange eyespot and several blue spots on each hind wing.
  • Caterpillars are green with black bands containing yellow spots.

Black Swallowtails are one of the most common garden butterflies in southern California.


They love flower nectar and frequently stop to drink on garden plants.

Their caterpillars use cultivated herbs like parsley and mint as host plants. They can sometimes be harmful to these plants if they feed too much, so keep an eye on your herb garden if you have Black Swallowtails around!


Black Swallowtails are excellent at mimicry, which is an evolutionary defense mechanism. They have developed markings similar to the Pipevine Swallowtail, which is toxic to most predators. In this way, Black Swallowtails can hide in plain sight!

#12. Cabbage White

  • Pieris rapae

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Cabbage White Butterflies have a wingspan of 1.25 to 2 inches.
  • The wings are light greenish to white, with black wing tips and black dots in the center of each wing. Males have one black dot on each side, and females have two.
  • Caterpillars, sometimes called Cabbage Worms, are dark green with a light green stripe along the back.


Cabbage White butterflies are well-suited to almost any habitat in California.


The only areas they avoid are dense forests with little room to fly. You can even see this species if you live in the city since they often live in very large metropolitan areas!

Look for Cabbage Whites in the summer, when they are most active and breeding. Their caterpillars, sometimes called Cabbage Worms, are a pest because they often overtake and eat cabbage, kale, nasturtium, and other brassica plants.


If you have a vegetable garden and see Cabbage Whites, you should pay extra attention to your plants to ensure these hungry insects don’t ruin them! In fact, Cabbage White butterflies are invasive in California. This non-native species was transported here through the food and agricultural trade.


Since it’s so well-suited to our climate, its population has exploded and it’s now considered one of the most damaging invasive species to crops.


#13. Orange Sulphur

  • Colias eurytheme

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Orange Sulphur Butterflies have a wingspan of 1.5 to 2.5 inches.
  • Their coloring is bright yellow-orange with black borders on the wings and irregular black spots.


Look for Orange Sulfur butterflies in California along sunny roadsides, meadows, and gardens.


Its preferred food and host plant is Alfalfa, which is how it got the nickname “Alfalfa butterfly”.

The easiest way to recognize an Orange Sulphur is by its flight pattern. They have an erratic, jerky flying style and usually stay low to the ground.


You’re likely to see this abundant and widespread species in urban and suburban environments during the spring and summer.


#14. Clouded Sulphur

  • Colias philodice

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Clouded Sulphur butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.75 inches.
  • This species has two color forms, one white with a light green cast, and one yellow. Both morphs have a red-ringed eyespot and pinkish borders on the wings.


Clouded Sulphurs are some of the most common butterflies in eastern California!


This is because they’re prolific breeders and are at home in almost any habitat.

Look for them along roadsides, parks, and home gardens. They are often found in the same area as their closely related cousins, the Orange Sulphur. However, the erratic, jerky flight style of Orange Sulphurs set them apart from most other butterfly species. To properly identify a Clouded Sulphur, look for a “wobbly” flying butterfly.


There are two distinct morphs of the Clouded Sulphur. The white morph is primarily white with a greenish tint, and the yellow morph is almost entirely yellow. Interestingly, ONLY females display the white color morph, and males are always yellow.


#15. Cloudless Sulphur

  • Phoebis sennae

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Cloudless Sulphurs have a wingspan of 2.2 to 2.8 inches.
  • Their coloring is unmarked, bright lemon-yellow.


Cloudless Sulphurs are one of the most recognized butterflies in southern California!


This is because they’re so widespread and abundant in their habitat, and also because they aren’t shy around humans!

Cloudless Sulphurs are almost always pure yellow, with only a few markings on their wings. Sometimes a small white eyespot ringed in dark red can be spotted on their upper wings.


Unfortunately, this species has been impacted by habitat loss due to overdevelopment. While it isn’t considered a threatened species, the Cloudless Sulphur isn’t as prolific as it used to be. One way you can help is to plant flowers that are native to your area, which will naturally attract these cheerful butterflies!

#16. Common Checkered-Skipper

  • Burnsius Communis

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 0.75-1.25 inches.
  • Their coloring is faded white with tan-colored bands and a black or brown edge on the hindwing. From above, they have a distinctive black and white checkered pattern.
  • Females are darker in color.
  • Males are extensively covered with long, bluish-white hairs on the body.

It’s easy to see how this butterfly in California got its name.

The Common Checkered-Skipper has a distinctive block pattern on its wings that looks like a checkerboard.

Common Checkered-Skipper Range Map

Its favorite host plant is Mallow, and it prefers pastures, open fields, and disturbed sites. This species is often seen next to roads.

Males search out a suitable female to mate with, and then she lays her pale green eggs on the soft parts of the hostplant. Once the caterpillar emerges, it feeds on the host plant and curls the leaves around it for winter protection.

#17. Sachem

  • Atalopedes Campestris

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 1-1.5 in.
  • The Male’s forewings are dull orange with brown edges. The hindwings are shadowy yellow with a unique brown area on its edge and a band of pale spots.
  • The Female’s forewings are dark brown, with the center of the wing dull orange. The forewing’s edges have black patches and white windows. Their hindwings are brown with pale spots in a V shape.

Sachems prefer wide open spaces with full sun. Their habitat includes pastures, fields, suburban lawns, and gardens.

The male plays a laid-back role in the mating prosses and perch near or on the ground while waiting for an interested female. Once a female chooses and mates with a male, she lays her eggs on dry blades of grass. The Sachem caterpillar roles itself in leaves for protection and feeds on blades of grass.

One of the easiest ways to recognize this skipper is to look at its flight pattern. The Sachem has a zippy, whirling way of flying, similar to the Whirlabout and the Fiery Skipper. Lepidopterists often call these three species the “three wizards,” because they often look like they’re casting spells!

#18. Pipevine Swallowtail

  • Battus Philenor

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 2-3 inches.
  • Their coloring is largely black, with bright metallic blue near the edges and orange and white spots on the underside.

Pipevine Swallowtails constantly move around in California to find nectar. They particularly like pink and purple flowers! If you want to attract these beautiful visitors, plant nectar-producing flowers like Phlox.

Males actively seek out females when they are ready to mate. Once the female mates, she places her eggs on the undersides of the host plant. After hatching, the caterpillars feed in groups on host plants in the Aristolochia family, like Virginia Snakeroot and Dutchman’s pipe.

Like many other butterflies, the Pipevine Swallowtail is unpalatable to birds and other predators.

#19. Silver-Spotted Skipper

  • Epargyreus Clarus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 1.75-2.25 inches.
  • They have a large silver patch on the central part of the hindwing.
  • From above, the wings are dark brown with a golden-orange band. From below, they look much the same with frosted lavender edges.

These skippers in California have a fascinating appetite!

Silver-Spotted Skippers have long tongues that they use to feed on everything from mud, flowers, and sometimes even animal feces. Due to their appetite, they prefer being near the edges of forests where nectar is abundant.

Males of this species perch on tree limbs or elevated vegetation until he notices a female. Then he begins a jerky flight to investigate and attract the female. After they have mated, the female lays her eggs on a host plant.

Silver-Spotted Skipper caterpillars are just as unique as their adult form. For protection, the caterpillar cuts a flap into a leaf, rolls it to form a tube, and then secures it with silk. The leaf tube provides the caterpillar protection during the day until it comes out at night to feed. In addition, when the caterpillar is threatened, it regurgitates a bitter green chemical and flings its scent away to confuse predators!

#20. Checkered White

  • Pontia Protodice

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 1-2 inches.
  • Males are white dark grey markings on the forewings.
  • Females are grayish-white with dark checkers on both the fore- and hindwings.
  • Both sexes have white hindwings with gray, yellow, and brown markings.

Checkered White butterflies are common in California.

One of the most fascinating characteristics of this butterfly is its ability to use UV signals to communicate. These amazing insects can tell the difference between males and females of their species based on the UV radiation they give off! If a female notices that there are a lot of other females, she will migrate to a less dense population in hopes of attracting a mate.

Checkered White Range Map

Checkered White females lay their eggs on the host plants’ fruits and sometimes the stems. The larvae prefer to eat the flower or fruit of the host plant instead of the leaves. This butterfly prefers open and sunny areas like deserts and plains, and it’s often found in vacant lots, airports, railroads, and dry grassland.

#21. Fiery Skipper

  • Hylephila Phyleus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 1-1.25 inches.
  • Males are mainly orange with black patches.
  • Females are mostly brown with orange patches.

Female Fiery Skippers have only one thing on their mind: finding a suitable habitat to lay their eggs. They travel far and wide, looking for an area with plenty of access to their preferred host plants, which include various types of native grasses.

In contrast, the males sit patiently, waiting for a potential female to come to them. These skippers in California mate the day they emerge, and after three days, the females lay 50-150 eggs.

When they aren’t finding a mate, adults feed on flower nectar. So, your backyard garden beds are an ideal habitat for these pretty visitors!

#22. Gulf Fritillary

  • Dione vanillae

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 2-4 inches.
  • From above, they are brilliant orange with black streaks and speckled brown with white or silvery dots underneath.

Gulf Fritillaries are common in butterfly gardens throughout California.

They prefer sunny open grasslands, woodlands, or parks as their habitat. The best plants to attract these vibrant butterflies are passion vines and Lantana plants.

Gulf Fritillaries have a unique mating ritual where the female and male circle around each other while the male releases its pheromones. When the female settles, the male hovers above her, showering her with more pheromones. Then, the male settles beside the female and flaps his wings, covering her antennae to assure her he is the same species.

After the pair mates, the female flies low into vegetation and lays one egg. The female continues laying her eggs one by one on the host plant, usually a passion vine of the species Passiflora lutea or Passiflora incarnata.

#23. Anise Swallowtail

  • Papilio Zelicaon

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 2-3 inches.
  • Their coloring is yellow with black bands on the edges of their forewings. The body is mainly black, with lateral yellow stripes along the abdomen.
  • Their hindwings are largely yellow, with a yellowish orange eyespot.

Anise Swallowtails prefer open areas both inland and on the coast. These butterflies in California aren’t picky about where they live!

They use a mating strategy called “hill-topping.” This is where a male perches on a mountain cliff, hilltop, or high foliage and waits for a female to find him. That’s one way to conserve your energy while finding a partner!

Anise Swallowtail males are aggressive, especially when breeding, and they defend their territory by attacking other males to secure a potential mate.

#24. Western Tiger Swallowtail

  • Papilio Rutulus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 3-4 inches.
  • Their wings are bright yellow with broad black stripes along the edges. Four black stripes run parallel across each forewing from the front to the back.
  • From above, the hindwings are yellow with black stripes and orange and blue spots near the tail.

Look for these butterflies in California near water.

Western Tiger Swallowtails prefer being close to rivers, streams, and lakes, and they’re often seen in gardens, roadside meadows, canyons, and parks.

Western Tiger Swallowtail Range Map

To find a mate, males flutter around hilltops or canyons looking for a female. After mating, the female will deposit her eggs on the leaves of a host plant, usually a willow, cottonwood, or aspen tree. When the caterpillars appear, they instinctively seek shelter in the tree’s foliage.

As a deterrent against predators, the caterpillar has two large spots on its tail that look like eyes. They also have a forked organ called a Stinkhorn or Osmeterium, which produces a foul smell to keep predators away.

#25. Queen

  • Danaus Gilippus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are about 3 inches.
  • From above, their coloring is bright orange with a black border and many white spots.

Queen butterflies in California lay eggs on milkweed plants.

The fascinating reason for this comes down to self-preservation! Like other caterpillars, these insects consume Cardiac Glycosides from the milkweed plants. These chemicals taste bad to predators and are carried over to their adult stage, protecting them from being eaten.

Queen butterflies prefer open and arid areas in California close to milkweed. Males have a black scale patch that releases pheromones, attracting females to mate with. After mating, the female will stay close to the area she found the male and lay her eggs nearby.

#26. Two-Tailed Swallowtail

  • Papilio Multicaudata

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 3-6.5 inches.
  • From above, their coloring is yellow with black stripes. The hindwings have blue marks and a tiny orange eyespot, as well as thin black stripes and two tails per wing.
  • Females have additional blue markings and a brighter yellow color.

Two-Tailed Swallowtail butterflies in California prefer areas with open space and plenty of sunlight. Look for them in foothills, canyons, valleys, woodlands, roadsides, parks, cities, and suburb gardens.

Males of this species spend their entire life finding a female to mate with due to their short lifespan. If it takes a long time to find a mate, males search for nutrients in rotten material, dirt, and sometimes feces, an odd behavior called mud puddling.

Although it’s one of the most recognizable features, the Two-tailed Swallowtail doesn’t need its tails to fly. Instead, they’re often used to escape predators. When a predator attacks the Swallowtail and grabs onto its tails, they break off, and the butterfly can escape.

#27. Gray Buckeye

  • Junonia Grisea

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adult wingspans are 1.5-2.75 inches.
  • From above, their coloring is brown with orange, black, white, and maroon accents.
  • Their hindwings and forewings each have 2 eyespots, but the top eyespot is often blurry.

Look for Gray Buckeye butterflies in California in warm and sunny clearings.

Both males and females perch on the ground or on short grass. However, it can be difficult to get a good look because this species is extremely jumpy. They’re alert to the smallest movement and will quickly fly away.

But their jumpiness isn’t a sign of weakness! Amazingly, Gray Buckeyes can still fly with only one-third of their wing capacity if they are attacked and lose parts of their wings.

Gray Buckeyes aren’t just tough when it comes to predators. Sometimes, a female will reject a male by lifting her abdomen upward, preventing the male from pairing with her. It can be a tough blow to a male who’s been searching for a mate! However, if the female accepts the male, she lays each of her eggs by itself on a host plant, which includes several types of wildflowers and native trees.

Do you need more help identifying butterflies in California?


Try this field guide!


Which of these butterflies have you seen in California?


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  1. Lots of butterflies! Monarch, Gulf Frittery, Sulphars, Cabbage, Swallowtails, Painted Lady, Fiery Skippers, Hairstreaks and the occasional Mourning Cloak.

  2. I recently help nurse about 80 Gulf Fritillary caterpillars (Agraulis vanillae) which are passion vine caterpillars that look a lot like monarchs. And in my garden I also have Cloudless Sulphurs and cabbage white butterflies (which have devoured two of my plants and multiply very fast). Recently I started seeing these small baby butterflies that look lavender/ light purple color. I live in San Diego and we’ll my backyard has become a butterfly oasis now.

  3. I see lots of Yellow cloudless Sulphur, white cabbage, Gulf Fritillary, Monarchs, Swallowtails and occasionally Buck eyes and Grey hair streaks in my developing butterfly garden. I started growing host plants about six years which I think has attracted them to my yard in zone 9b,in French Valley, South Western Riverside County.