Moseying: Exploring the Natural World
Prairie Dog in a tree
June 23, 2004
In Glasscock County I saw a prairie dog in a tree so I had to make up a story why!
Old Lady Prairie Dog sat on her high mound on the first day the mesquites were fully leafed out. Among humans, a folktale claims that no more freezes will happen when the mesquites turn green. She knows better. She listened to the melody of the neighboring Cassin's Sparrow, enjoying the rising then falling notes. The Sparrow returned to his yucca seed-stalk signpost over and over, repeating his song once every other minute.
It is the song of the Llano Estacado springtime, especially when it given a rhythm section by the clarion trumpeting of thousands of invisible Sandhill Cranes resounding from the empty sky far above. The Cranes were leaving the big playa to the south on this very day, and were beginning the long journey to the nesting grounds in the prairie potholes of Saskatchawan. Today, tonight, and tomorrow the Cranes would fly a thousand miles to land on the sandbars of the rivers Platte and Niobara, where they would court, rest and feed for a few weeks.
Her grandbabies would be aboveground as soon as the sun cleared the horizon. Her busy time had started again, continually watching out for Coyote and his always changing tricks, or Badger and his resolute tunneling. She did not know about the traditional archenemy, the Blackfooted Ferret. Nobody had seen this nocturnal nightmare of prairie dogs on the Llano Estacado for years. In the human world there had been rumors they were to be reintroduced. Right now, she rested, as the first slanting rays of the just risen sun became visible through the Soapberry tree grove in a hollow on the crest of the sandy ridge northeast of the draw. The drawbottom down below was still in night's shadow, the contorted branches of the hackberry trees frozen in frenzied and frantic poses.
Old Lady Prairie Dog could see the oldest male down in the draw. He had mated with her one year, and was the father of one of her living daughters. No females accepted him this year after he lost several battles with younger males. To the other prairie dogs he had begun to act strangely, becoming a loner, and doing un-prairie dog like things. He had wandered down into the draw, away from all of the others. Old Man Prairie Dog spent a lot of time just sunning himself. At present, though, he was six feet up in a Bumelia tree.
Being squirrels, Prairie Dogs can climb, but they usually do it underground, climbing up their holes. Sometimes the burrows can be 10 feet deep, and have a dozen rooms. Some are for sleeping, and some are for defecating. Some rooms are air-pocket rooms so if a flooding rain comes and fills the burrow, there will still be a dry place to hide. Old Man Prairie Dog climbed the tree because he had gone a little crazy with senility. A predator would soon catch him, most likely.
Old Man Prairie Dog was in the tree because of a Roadrunner. When he was just a weanling in his first bachelor hole on the ridge above the draw, a Massasauga Rattlesnake took up residence. The yearling prairie dog had kicked dirt at the transient snake and even had tried to wall it off in the room in which it chose to sleep. The Massasauga belonged down in the watercourse, under downed dead trunks of trees. Careful observers of animal ethology have noticed that a small percentage of most species of animals become wanderers. It may be that they are afflicted with a parasite or a disease that causes abnormal behavior, but the phenomenon is poorly studied. The wanderers may be programmed genetically, as a means of gene dispersal.
When the yearling did not succeed in chasing it from the burrow, he started to dig another. After working most of a day, he rested as the sun neared the horizon, and the Massasauga wriggled out of the first hole and slithered directly towards the second. The yearling prairie dog was so tired he did not move, just glared at the snake as it neared. A Roadrunner magically appeared and whacked it on the head, which caused it to coil. The Roadrunner jumped in the air and beat his wings, which caused the snake to strike. It quickly coiled again. The Roadrunner danced over him again, and the rattler struck again. The dance lasted several minutes, and finally when the snake struck and did not immediately coil again, the Roadrunner grabbed his neck and squeezed, the bones cracking. With a flip of his head, the Roadrunner gulped the first eight inches of the snake, and then stood staring at the yearling prairie dog.
In Old Man Prairie Dog's senile brain, that memory came bubbling up as the Roadrunner starting singing with the first gray light of the day. Old Man Prairie Dog wanted to make sure it had that snake. In any species, old age can bring an atrophying of brain cells, and connections between the cells can be erratic.
Roadrunners have several calls. The song sounds like a dove with bronchitis, a deep cooing. When a Roadrunner creates that song, it appears to be vomiting, bending over and its body shaking as if it has the heaves. The singing Roadrunner was at the top of the Bumelia. Bumelia has a pretty purplish-black fruit that tastes acceptable to most humans palates, but after eating a number of them diarrhea is the probable result. The trees look somewhat similar to the almost evergreen Live Oaks further east, but are deciduous. Chittamwood (the local name of Bumelia) will regenerate from the root if burned or browsed, so many are multi-trunked.
SNORT! A small herd of Javelinas began snuffling under the Bumelia, rooting around turning the soil with hooves and snouts. Just germinating Bumelia seeds were gulped with relish. Javelinas arrived in Midland County in the early 1990's, as the populations to the south grew and spread. In the 1990's they were able to travel from the Stockton Plateau to the southern Llano Estacado because the prickly pear thickets that mark the cattle drives of the 1930's matured. Trucks hauled burned cactus to feed the cattle starving from the lack of grass in that drought. Pieces that were left behind rooted, and over the years grew to huge plants that produced millions of seeds that were further spread in the droppings of birds and animals.
Old Man Prairie Dog was half-blind and half deaf. He began backing down the tree, disappointed that the roadrunner did not have the snake. He backed right down into the middle of the group of the Javelinas. The oldest sow noticed the old prairie dog, her hair on her neck bristling. Javelinas have poor eyesight, unable to fine-focus beyond 8 feet. She feinted a charge at the movement of the prairie dog, dashing forward five feet and stopping, then stamping and snorting. Old Man Prairie Dog did not react, for he was still looking up at the tree, and feeling his muscles tremble with the effort of climbing. The oldest sow charged again, butting Old Man Prairie Dog. He rolled and hit the trunk of the tree. She stood over his motionless body, as he stared at the roadrunner above until his eyes glazed.