Friday, February 6, 2009

"Gran'pa, tell me about when there were butterflies."

Down at the nature center we try to keep plugged in with Chip Taylor up at the University of Kansas. For some 16 years now Chip and his gang in Lawrence have been running an educational outreach program called Monarch Watch focusing on everything relating to monarch butterflies. Seems now there is serious doubt Monarch Watch will survive for a 17th year.

So what? I mean, what's all the hoopla with some butterfly? Imagine some day down the road when a grandchild crawls up on your lap and says, "Gran'pa, tell me about when there were butterflies." Our young Texans have all but lost contact with horny toads, officially registered as a "threatened" species in spite of being our official state reptile. Will the monarch butterfly be the next wild creature to vanish from our yards and gardens?

Not if Chip and other dedicated professional scientists and citizen scientists can help it. Through Monarch Watch, thousands of school kids have learned and continue to learn about the life cycle and the astonishing migrations of the monarch. Thousands of students, their teachers and parents diligently plant and care for Monarch Waystations filled with host plants and nectar plants essential to the butterflies in an effort to replace habitat lost to human development. And something over 100,000 of these amateur scientists and naturalists tag monarch butterflies each fall during the migration to the wintering grounds in Mexico.

This annual tagging program provides Chip and other researchers invaluable data on the monarchs. More importantly, though, the several projects under Monarch Watch get our kids excited about participating in hands-on science. The get to experience science first hand, not as something done only by white-coated nerds locked away in ivory towers and only read about by real people in boring textbooks. These kids get to go outside and make a difference.

Now Chip needs our help if this invaluable program is to continue. See for yourself what Monarch Watch is all about and what it is accomplishing at And while you're there, stop by the store and pick up a book or two. Before you leave, pull out the plastic and tell Chip and the gang "Thank you!" with a donation. Large or small, every little bit helps.

Your grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be glad you did.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Don't call a prairie dog a groundhog!

Legendary local farm reporter and curmudgeon Joe Brown is adamant on the subject. Prairie dogs and groundhogs are not the same critter! Often, it is not easy to agree with old "Do It Up" Brown, but in this particular instance, Joe is right on.

The common groundhog (
Marmota monaxor) or woodchuck is a marmot, a member of the squirrel family (sciuridae), that inhabits lowland areas of east-central Alaska and British Columbia south to Idaho, east through most of southern Canada, and south to eastern Kansas, northern Alabama, and Virginia. Woodchuck comes from a Cree Indian word, wuchak, identifying several different animals of similar size and color, including other marmots. The groundhogs' home range does not reach into the southern Rolling Plains.

Our local prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), the black-tailed prairie dog, also belong to the family sciuridae but bear only slight family resemblance to their northeastern cousins. Considerably smaller and lighter colored than groundhogs, prairie dogs prefer the short grass prairies from Eastern Montana and Southwest North Dakota south to extreme Southeastern Arizona, New Mexico, and Northwest Texas.

Prairie dogs are more active during the warmer times of the year, but they do not hibernate as groundhogs typically do. The groundhog's legendary emergence from its den in early February has more to do with love than checking out the weather. Males emerge briefly to scout out an appropriately receptive female and locate her home den address. Once he's found her, the courtship is put on hold for a later date as the male returns to his own hole to finish his nap.

Farmers and ranchers in the plains states tend to view prairie dogs as pests to be permanently evicted from the human's landholding by whatever means necessary. Consequently, the prairie dogs' days are numbered unless attitudes change.

Truth is prairie dogs are essential to the health of a grassland ecosystem. Their underground homes contribute to the vitality of the soil and plant cover as well as provide shelter for a whole host of other prairie creatures like burrowing owls and the endangered black-footed ferrets. Prairie dogs also feed, quite literally, a whole host of prairie predators from the aforementioned ferrets to eagles and other birds of prey.

Besides all that, the little critters are just flat fun to watch!