Getting my daily dose of wildlife while visiting family on vacation can be frustrating. At home I know when and where to go to find cool critters. Heinz Refuge and Cape May in early May for warblers, the Delaware Bayshore in late May for horseshoe crabs and red knots, Hawk Mountain in the fall for raptors. When I go away to visit family, it’s an excellent opportunity to visit new places. But the timing of the visits isn’t always conducive to wildlife spotting.
I go to Texas in the winter. Except at White Rock Lake (where there’s always something happening) I pretty much have to take what I can get.
That means a lot of landscape and plant photography, and accepting that brown is the color of the day.
Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge was no different when I visited; lots of neat habitat, not a lot of wildlife.
Except for the prairie dogs!
The Nature Center has a prairie dog town. It’s a large area of fenced prairie; I’m not sure whether the fence is to keep the prairie dogs in, or the humans out. The sign above would seem to indicate the latter.
Inside the enclosure, a good number of the little rodents go about their lives. Yes, they are rodents, related to squirrels. The “dog” name comes from their high-pitched bark. Prairie dogs are highly social. They live together in family groups, sometimes called a coterie; a number of groups comprise a ward, and a number of wards make up a town.
The land is peppered with the entrances to their burrows. Weather is harsh in the prairies, and burrows offer protection from floods, hailstorms, fires and temperature extremes. Below the ground are a number of separate chambers for sleeping, raising babies, food storage and elimination. There may be as many as 6 entrances to a burrow. The craters serve as lookout posts and ventilation.
FUN FACT: Burrow holes have different shapes and heights. When the wind blows, air moves into the burrow through the lower, more rounded dome craters; it passes through the burrow and exits through the higher, sharper-edged rim crater.
Prairie dogs dance! Nuzzling and grooming is common among family groups. It’s ridiculously cute when they do this. Call it the Texas Two-step.
CONSERVATION PIECE: Not everyone thinks prairie dogs are cute. They feed on grasses, sedges and roots, keeping the vegetation short and churning up the soil. This benefits the habitat by enriching the plant life and attracting other wildlife. Their burrows can provide homes for other critters as well. Because of their importance to the plains, prairie dogs are considered a keystone species.
Despite this, farmers and ranchers often consider them pests, and eliminate them where possible. This has contributed to a population nose-dive, which has had a ripple effect across the plains. The endangered black-footed ferret, which relies on prairie dogs for shelter and food, has been driven to near-extinction by their eradication.
Prairie dogs have a number of predators besides humans, including raptors, coyotes, snakes and ferrets. So they need to be wary. Living communally affords them safety in numbers. One or more prairie dogs will be on lookout duty at all times.
FUN FACT: Things get interesting when a threat is detected. Prairie dogs have a large repertoire of barks and calls. Years of study have revealed that these calls are capable of indicating not only which species of animal is threatening the colony, but can describe the individual animal. A prairie dog call for a tall human is different than the call for a short one!
Always on the lookout, a lone sentry stands guard.
And off we go.