Okie “groundhog”

October 19, 2016 at 5:00 am (National Wildlife Refuges (US Fish & Wildlife), Nature, Nature photography, Oklahoma, Photography, Wichita Mountains NWR, Wildlife)

From my MeadowLarking column in the Fort Sill Tribune.


FORT SILL, Okla., Feb. 4, 2016 — To introduce this new column about Oklahoma’s wild things, written by a long-time nature lover, we’ll celebrate Groundhog Day with our region’s closest relative, the black-tailed prairie dog. In Southwest Oklahoma, the prairie dog did see its shadow Tuesday morning, but here’s hoping it doesn’t have the same meaning as it does in Punxsutawney, Pa.

Prairie dogs have great entertainment value to visitors at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, who are often seen watching them at two roadside locations. It would be fascinating if we could see, ant-farm style, the huge underground burrows with various rooms as these rodents scamper about, especially on rainy or cold days when they don’t come out to play.

These relatives of the groundhog don’t hibernate, and even in January they are often active outside their burrows, digging for roots, harvesting dry grass to line their bed chambers or nursery, or chasing each other. In case you were wondering, they do also have underground bathrooms. (Honest!)

Their similarity to dogs is hard to see, and even their warning calls sound more like shrill birds than canines. Up close, their faces and twitching noses make them look like bunny rabbits without the long ears. Sideways they resemble plump guinea pigs. When they stand upright, one might think of “Meerkat Manor,” the television show about a colony of African mongooses.

Unfortunately, prairie dogs are not universally loved. They have been poisoned and hunted, their colonies plowed over, and their habitat lost to housing. When the flea-borne sylvatic plague hits a colony, it is fatal to nearly the entire population. Thus their numbers are only a fraction of what they were before the turn of the 20th century.

Prairie dogs are known as a keystone species, meaning that many other plant and animal species depend on them for survival. We will meet some of them in future columns, but one we won’t see here is the native black-footed ferret, which depends almost solely on prairie dogs for food. (Yes, it eats them.) This endangered weasel was almost extinct when a captive-breeding program led to selective releases back into the wild in other states.

The prairie dog colonies at the refuge have been reintroduced, as have the bison and elk there, to bring back some of the prairie ecosystem that has been lost. The Prairie Dog Town on the western side of the refuge has a parking lot, and visitors can get a close up view. Another good-sized colony is at the Holy City turnoff at State Highway 49.

Remember to keep wildlife wild. Don’t feed them. Don’t approach them. And by all means, enjoy them.

Cindy McIntyre’s theme song is Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere (Man).” She’s lived on all three U. S. coasts, and worked in several national parks and one wildlife refuge. As a small child she snatched baby sparrows from their nests and imprisoned lizards in Prince Albert cans because she wanted pets. She is now content to just photograph and appreciate wild critters.

All photographs copyrighted by Cindy McIntyre

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Website:  CindyMcIntyre.com

Online gallery:  Smugmug and Fine Art America

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Contact:  cindy at cindymcintyre.com



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