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!
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