How To Identify Skipper Butterflies

Skipper butterflies, (Hesperiidae) commonly get described as small, flighty, dark winged butterflies.

Their formal classification continues to prompt debate. Generally North American populations divide into five or six subfamilies:

  • Firetips (Subfamily Pyrrhopyginae)
  • Giant-Skippers (Subfamily Megathyminae)
  • Grass Skippers (Subfamily Hesperiinae)
  • Dicot Skippers (Subfamily Eudaminae)
  • Skipperlings (Subfamily Heteropterinae)
  • Spread-wing Skippers (Subfamily Pyrginae)

With approximately 275 total species, (plus or minus 10 because the number of documented species varies according to source) skippers rank as the largest butterfly family.

Often the brush footed butterflies receive credit as the largest subfamily of true butterflies. Despite what appears to be, at least on paper, family diversity, approximately ninety per cent of skippers belong to either the Spread-wing Skipper or Grass Skipper subfamilies.

This introduction covers some basic grass skipper, dicot skipper and skipperling information. Please press the green Spread-wing Skipper button for additional information covering that group.

Skipper Butterflies: Grass Skippers

picture of a Dun Skipper butterfly
Approximately one hundred and forty native North American grass skippers (Hesperiinae) divide into approximately thirty genera, making it the largest of the skipper subfamilies. The expansive number of native grass species, the subfamily’s larval plant, partially explains their diversity.

When it comes to all but butterfly enthusiasts, skipper butterflies don’t rank high for easy identification. The larger colorful brush footed butterfly species they see commonly seen in gardens and back yards often have distinct wing colors and patterns that make butterfly identification fairly easy. The pictures presented here highlight their basic physical characteristics as a group of small butterflies with orange or brown wings, large eyes and thick bodies.

As the video at the top of the page shows, the grass skipper habit of folded wings at rest is the first identification clue. As the beginning of the video shows, with the exception of the small visible spots on the top wing, the lack of patterns on the remainder of the side of the wings suggests the Eufala Skipper. They are a common species across the southern half of the United States.

A handful of grass skipper lack wing patterns, including the Dun Skipper, pictured at the top of this section. Although there are some spots on portions of their wings, the top down picture shows no visible wing pattern. It ranges from east of the Rockies across to the Atlantic Coast.

picture of a Little Glassywing skipper
The Little Glassywing, a common eastern species also looks similar to the Dun Skipper. The light spots on the Dun Skipper are generally less pronounced on both wings, indicating the species in the picture, with more pronounced spots, is the Little Glassywing.

picture of a Fawn-spotted skipper skipper
A southern specialty, the Fawn-spotted Skipper shows three small spots on the forewing.

picture of a side view of a sonoran skipper
The Sonora Skipper, a fairly common skipper of the Western meadows and wetlands shows wing patterns contrasting larger, separate spots on the hindwing, and a slight pattern of smaller spots on the tip of the forewing.

picture of a Whirlabout skipper
Whirabous, small Southeastern grass skippers, fly almost year round in its range. Larvae feed on the dominant grasses in the area such as Bermuda grass.

picture of a Fiery Skipper
Firey Skippers, very common in the eastern half of the United States, also established a population in California.

Skipper Butterflies: Dicot Skippers

picture of a Silver-spotted skipper butterfly
Dicot skipper caterpillars share the plant eating characteristics of the grass skippers, with a diet that extends beyond grasses. Perhaps the most common and best known dicot skipper is the Silver-spotted skipper. It’s larger than the average skipper with showy wings. Silver-spotted skippers are not picky eaters, any legume will do. That explains their range from coast to coast.

About three dozen dicot skippers (Subfamily Eudaminae), with familiar names such as cloudywings and longwings receive native North American status. Some experts also classify this group within the larger Spread-wing Skipper subfamily.

In terms of species diversity, most dicot skipper species limit their range to areas along the southern border areas. Species from the long-tailed skippers and cloudywings probably provide the most species diversity in the rest of the United States.

picture of a long-tailed-skipper
The average North American size for skipper butterflies increases with the inclusion of the approximately one dozen native Urbanus species.

Better known as the long-tailed skippers, they also introduce a bit of color into a butterfly family best known for having brown wings. Primarily a tropical genera, three-quarters of native species either have very small and limited established populations or occasionally get checked off on a local field list as it migrates across Mexico-United States borders.

The blue coloration on the thorax, abdomen and top part of the tails differentiate the Long-tailed Skipper (Urbanus proteus), first picture from other species. Its range extends from southern New England, south to Florida and the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Larvae feed on plants in the pea family. Adults nectar on a variety of flowers in their territory.

picture of a white striped Longtail skipper butterfly
In comparison, the following picture shows a White-striped Longtail.

picture of a Northern Cloudywing butterfly
One of six native Thorybes species, the Northern Cloudywing (Thorybes pylades), extends its range from coast to coast.

All native Thorybes caterpillars, including the Northern Cloudywing consume plants in the pea family as larval hosts.

Physically, the picture shows your basic, medium sized, brown butterfly, with white spots on the top and bottom sides of the forewings.

Skipperling Butterflies

picture of an arctic skipper, part of the skipper butterflies collection
Another primarily tropical subfamily, Skipperlings, registers five or six native North American species in two genera.

The Arctic Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon), pictured at the top of the page, bucks the general neotropical skipperling trend. Its range extends from coast to coast across Canada and southward across the northern United States.

picture of a Southern Skipperling butterfly
From north to South, the picture shows the Southern Skipperling.