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Historical References to Prairie Dog Towns
[Steve Jones, Nature Net, Oct 25, 2003]

I recently discovered this wonderful description of a prairie dog town in Meriwether Lewis’s journal. I've added a couple of other historical descriptions by Parkman and Borland. You will note that Borland, a consummate naturalist, apparently didn't understand (at least as a boy) prairie dog coterie structure. All three descriptions create vivid images of how prairie dog colonies function in relatively natural grassland ecosystems. Steve

Meriwether Lewis, September 17, 1804; near the Great Bend of the Missouri
(South Dakota):

"This plain extends with the same breath from the creek below to the distance of near three miles above parallel with the river, and it is entirely occupied by the burrows of the barking squirrel heretofore described; this animal appears here in infinite numbers and the shortness and the verdure of grass gave the plain the appearance throughout its whole extent of beautiful bowling-green in fine order....A great number of wolves of the small kind, hawks and some pole-cats were to be seen. I presume that those animals feed on this squirrel."

- DeVoto, Bernard. 1981. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Page 28.

Francis Parkman, 1846; Valley of the Platte (western Nebraska):

"The antelope were very numerous; and as they are always bold when in the neighborhood of buffalo, they would approach to look at me, gaze intensely with their great round eyes, then suddenly leap aside, and stretch lightly away over the prairie, as swiftly as a race-horse. Squalid, ruffian-like wolves sneaked through the hollows and sandy ravines. Several times I passed through villages of prairie-dogs, who sat, each at the mouth of his burrow, holding his paws before him in a supplicating attitude, and yelping away most vehemently, whisking his little tail with every squeaking cry he uttered. Prairie-dogs are not fastidious in their choice of companions; various long checkered snakes were sunning themselves in the midst of the village, and demure little gray owls, with a large white ring around each eye, were perched side-by-side with the rightful inhabitants. The prairie teemed with a life."

- Francis Parkman. 1950. The Oregon Trail. Pages 67-68.

Hal Borland, 1910; Sand-sage prairie south of Brush, Colorado:

"The big prairie dog town was almost two miles south of the house. It was on a high flat, and there were hundreds of burrows, each one like a fat doughnut of earth. The town was the busiest place you could imagine, with hundreds of prairie dogs, dozens of burrowing owls, an occasional rattlesnake, and now and then a badger or two, or a coyote, or a jackrabbit...

.... When we got to the dog town it looked as though half the hawks and coyotes and badgers in the country were living on the prairie dogs. I saw half a dozen hawks, and three coyotes skulked away as we came in sight. With the drought, the prairie dogs had eaten all the grass close to their holes. They had to go out to the edge of town to feed. They didn't know enough to dig new holes out at the edge, so there they were, away from their holes and squabbling among themselves. All their enemies were getting fat on them. There were even several new badger dens... ....I watched a hawk swoop down and catch one of those young prairie dogs, not a hundred feet from me. The others screamed in terror and dived for their burrows, and the hawk flew away with the pup in its talons. And in no time at all, the others were out again, just as though nothing had happened.

One group began squabbling over a little patch of grass. They snapped and snarled like cats with their tails tied together. Then off to the other side a frightened yelp went up and the alarm cry was sounded. There was a rush to the burrows.

I turned to look. Not fifty yards from me was a badger in the midst of a group of pups. The pups were so scared they ran in circles. The badger caught one pup. He lunged and caught another. The first one squirmed from under the badger's paw and tried to crawl away. One snap and the badger put an end to that.

Then it was so quiet all over that end of the dog town that you could have heard an owl flying. Not a dog was in sight."

- Hal Borland. 1956. High, Wide and Lonesome. Pages 141-42 and 157-58.


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