21 Common Butterflies 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 21 kinds of butterflies found in California.

 

If you enjoy this article, make sure to check out these other guides!

 


Admirals, Queens, & Emporers

These large and brightly colored beauties are some of the most recognizable butterflies 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

Butterflies species that live in California

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.

 


Crescents, Commas, and Anglewings

Named for the tiny markings on the undersides of their wings, these butterflies are known for their intricate designs.


#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. Pearl Crescent

  • Phyciodes tharos

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Pearl Crescent butterflies have a wingspan of 1.25 to 1.75 inches.
  • Their coloring is bright orange with black borders, spots, and lines. The pattern created by the black markings is similar to lace.
  • Caterpillars are dark brown with cream stripes and spines all over their bodies.

 

Look for Pearl Crescent butterflies in southern California near moist ground.

 

They prefer open, sunny habitats but many locations suit their needs, including forest edges, fields, meadows, and gardens.

The Pearl Crescent caterpillar’s preferred host is the Aster plant. Any flowering plants in your yard will attract this beautiful butterfly, but for best results, try to find one that’s native to your area.

 

When the caterpillars grow into butterflies, they will feed on the nectar of the Asters as well!

 


#7. Common Buckeye

  • Junonia coenia

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Common Buckeye butterflies have a wingspan of 2 to 2.5 inches.
  • Their coloring is brown with orange bars. Black and white rings outline three to four prominent eyespots with middles in blue, magenta, orange, and green shades.
  • Caterpillars are dark brown to black with stripes along the back and sides and spines around the entire body.

 

Common Buckeyes prefer open spaces like pastures, old fields, and roadsides in California. Although they’re hard to approach and wary of predators, they fly low to the ground and will often perch long enough for you to snap a photo.

 

In the southern U.S., Common Buckeyes don’t have a specific mating season. Since they can live in the southern climate all year, they continually reproduce.

Common Buckeyes in northern states migrate south for the winter and return in the spring for mating. These northern individuals can produce two to four generations each season!

 


Fritillaries

Fritillaries are some of the most abundant butterflies in California. They have a checkerboard type pattern and are usually shades of orange and black.


#8. Variegated Fritillary

  • Euptoieta claudia

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Variegated Fritillary butterflies have a wingspan of 1.75 to 2.25 inches.
  • The coloring of this species is tawny brown to burnt orange with black dots and lines. The outer edge of the wings is also lined in black.
  • Caterpillars are reddish-orange, with white stripes that run the length of the body and black spines.

 

Look for these butterflies in southern California in meadows, open lots, and fields.

Plant flowers like butterfly weed, mint, and sunflowers to attract them to your garden. Ornamental plants like violets, pansies, and passionflower serve as hosts for their caterpillars.

 

The Variegated Fritillary’s chrysalis is one of the most beautiful of all the butterflies in California. This protective shell is where the caterpillar transforms into the adult butterfly. Its pearly white color and shiny gold spikes make it look like an expensive jeweled pendant!

 


#9. 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.

 


Satyrs & Snouts

Satyr butterflies prefer cool, shady areas with less sunlight than other butterflies in California. There are estimated to be over 2,400 distinct species!


#10. 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!

 


#11. 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!

 


Gossamer Wings

These brightly colored, delicate-looking butterflies in California are some of the prettiest to look at!


#12. Azure

  • Celastrina ladon

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Azure Butterflies have a wingspan of 0.75 to 1.25 inches.
  • Their coloring is dusky gray to cornflower blue, with spots and stripes in shades of gray. Females of this species tend to be darker and less colorful.

Azure butterflies in eastern California are found in open woodlands, forest edges, roadsides, and hiking trails.

 

They’re one of the most widely-seen species in our area and very abundant within their range.

It’s common to see Azure butterflies before spring flowers are even in bloom! Azures are part of the Gossamer-Winged butterfly family, which gets its name from their wings’ fringed, fabric-like texture.

 

Three additional Azures have recently been given species status:

  • Summer Azure, Celastrina neglecta, is usually found later in the year and has more vibrant coloring than its early cousin.
  • Appalachian Azure, Celastrina neglectamajor, has a smaller range but is the largest Azure butterfly.
  • Dusky Asure, Celastrina nigra, is the least vibrant, often with no blue or ashen gray-blue wings.

 


#13. 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.

 


#14. 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!

 


#15. Coral Hairstreak

  • Satyrium titus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Coral Hairstreaks have a wingspan of 0.9 to 1.25 inches.
  • Their coloring is light grayish-brown with an outer row of coral spots ringed in black. They also have a second row of smaller black spots ringed in white.

 

You’re unlikely to mistake a Coral Hairstreak with any other butterfly in California!

 

Its coloring, both on the wings and its body, makes it unique among small butterflies.

Coral Hairstreaks prefer brushy fields and woodland edges with plenty of dense shrubs. Adults are especially attracted to milkweed blossoms for their nectar and as a place to perch.

 

Coral Hairstreak caterpillars use wild cherry and American plum trees as their hosts and feed on the fruits of these trees.

 


Swallowtails

With their long wing tails, colorful patterns, and large wings, Swallowtails are an impressive visitor to any garden! These species are definitely some of the most popular butterflies in California.


#16. 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!

 


Whites & Sulphurs

These small, unpatterned butterflies are common in California and often the first sign that spring has arrived.


#17. 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.

 


#18. 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.

 


#19. 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.

 


#20. 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!

 


#21. Little Sulphur

  • Eurema lisa

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Little Sulphur butterflies have a wingspan of 1 to 1.5 inches.
  • The coloring is bright yellow with a black border or wing tip in males. Females have pale yellow wings with dark speckles and blotches.
  • Caterpillars are deep green with a thin cream stripe on each side.

 

Look for Little Sulphurs in disturbed open areas like roadsides, vacant lots, and hiking trails. They’re also known as Little Yellows for their small size and bright yellow wings.

To attract them, try planting a local variety of aster whose nectar this species loves! Their caterpillars use the partridge pea as a host plant, so it’s a welcome addition to any butterfly garden.

 

Like many butterflies in California, Little Sulphurs can be found year-round in warm climates. Further north, look for this butterfly from late June to early October.

 


Do you need more help identifying butterflies in California?

 

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these butterflies have you seen in California?

 

Leave a comment below!

 

One response to “21 Common Butterflies in California! (ID Guide)”

  1. Carole says:

    Cabbage and sulphur and tiger. Otherwise, not the others. Live in Western Riverside county.

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