Urquhart's research on the route and destination of the insects started in 1937 and lasted for 38 years. He and Norah tracked the trails of the butterflies by tagging the wings of thousands of individual butterflies. They founded the first Insect Migration Association, today known as Monarch Watch, and recruited hundreds of volunteers - "citizen scientists" who helped in their research by tagging butterflies and reporting findings and sightings. The Urquharts raised thousands of monarchs at their home in Scarborough, Ontario, as well as using the facilities of the University of Toronto to analyze their findings and do research.
They identified several distinct migration routes, but were baffled why the trail seemed to disappear in Texas in the late fall, only to reappear in the spring. They sought help in Mexico and recruited a pair of naturalists to search for the butterflies. On January 9, 1975, Kenneth C. Brugger and his wife Catalina Trail (then known as Cathy Aguado) finally located the first known wintering refuge on a mountaintop in Michoacán, Mexico, more than 4,000 kilometers from the starting point of their migration. In 1976 the Urquharts traveled to Mexico to view the long-sought wintering site for themselves. The discovery was published in National Geographic magazine in August 1976; the article was titled "Discovered: The monarch's Mexican haven" and featured a cover photograph of Trail covered with butterflies. A dozen such sites are now known in Mexico; they are protected as ecological preserves by the Mexican government. The area is now a World Heritage Site known as the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Current conservation efforts are aimed at protecting monarchs in their breeding areas in the US and Canada.
Among other discoveries, the Urquharts learned that the butterflies only travel in daylight and can fly up to 130 kilometres (81 mi) in a day. The trip north spans several generations of monarchs, while a much-longer-lived "super generation" flies from the northern reaches of the butterfly's range all the way to Mexico, overwinters there, and breeds in the spring to start the next generation flying north.
Urquhart was born in Toronto on December 13, 1911. As a child he was fascinated by insects, particularly monarch butterflies, and he wondered where they went during the winter. He attended the University of Toronto, graduating in 1935 with a degree in biology. He received an MA in 1937 and a PhD in 1940. During World War II he taught meteorology to students in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Following the war he began work as a zoology professor at the University of Toronto and a zoology director at the Royal Ontario Museum. He helped to found the Federation of Ontario Naturalists. In 1966 he helped to organize and teach the zoology program at Scarborough College, now the University of Toronto Scarborough, retiring in 1977. He was a popular lecturer and produced a highly successful television lecture series. He wrote four books, a monograph, and 62 papers in peer-reviewed journals, as well as numerous scientific reports and popular articles. His best known books are The Monarch Butterfly (University of Toronto Press, 1960) and The Monarch Butterfly: International Traveler (University of Toronto Press, 1987).
On July 21, 1945, he married Norah Roden Patterson, who became his full collaborator in butterfly research, although she did not have a Ph.D. They had one son. Fred Urquhart died November 3, 2002 at the age of 90. Norah Urquhart died in Pickering on March 13, 2009 at the age of 90.
In 1998 Fred and Norah Urquart were presented with Canada's highest civilian award, the Order of Canada.
They received the W.W.H. Gunn award presented by the Federation of Ontario Naturalists.
The Urquhart Butterfly Garden in Dundas, Ontario is a 3-acre park designed to attract butterflies.
An IMAX film, Flight of the Butterflies, tells the story of the long search by the Urquharts, Brugger, and Trail to unlock the secret of the butterflies' migration.