A Note To Parents: We make every effort for Roxanne's blog to be a SAFE site for children. Whenever possible, activities are in pdf format or link to safe sites for children. Please feel free to use the information in these posts for homeschool studies! All rights reserved by author and nature photographer, Virginia Parker Staat.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What in the world is a Prairie Dog Town?

Black-tailed Prairie Dogs
When we visited the Great Plains, we saw some amazing little critters.  They are called Black-tailed prairie dogs.  They live underground in burrows.  They dig tunnels to connect their burrows to other prairie dog homes.  All the tunnels and homes make a prairie dog town.    

Prairie dogs live in community.  Most of their towns cover around an acre of land.  Some towns can be really big.  The largest prairie dog town ever was discovered by pioneers in West Texas.  The town covered an area 100 miles wide by 25 miles long.  It was home to around 400 million prairie dogs!

When prairie dogs see something strange near their homes, they bark.  When the coast is clear, prairie dogs raise their arms and yip.  Soon other prairie dogs join in and raise their arms and yip.  It is fun to watch them.  Here's a short video to show you their funny "high five" yip:

Pioneers thought that these barking animals were little dogs.  Prairie dogs are not dogs.  They are actually members of the rodent family.  They are herbivores, which means that they eat only vegetable materials like grasses, roots, and seeds.

Like wolves, many people don't like prairie dogs.  Some people see them as pests.  They think that prairie dogs ruin the earth because they dig so many tunnels.  They think that grass won't grow in prairie dog towns.  They fear that if grass won't grow then there won't be enough food for cattle and sheep.  

Scientists have discovered that the opposite is true.  They have learned that prairie dogs are very special to the environment.  Prairie dogs are called a keystone species.  A keystone species means that prairie dogs are so important to an environment that if they do not survive, it could ruin an entire ecosystem. 

Without prairie dogs, the earth suffers.  Prairie dogs help the soil when they dig their burrows.  They plant seeds.  They help grass and special plants to grow.  Their tunnels help more rain to soak into the earth.  

Without prairie dogs, animals suffer.  Prairie dogs are a food source for many animals like coyotes, rattlesnakes, eagles, and hawks.  Their burrows are homes to other creatures, like owls and ferrets.

Ferrets are a good example of what can happen when there are no prairie dogs.  Ferrets live in prairie dog burrows.  Their main diet is eating prairie dogs.  People killed so many prairie dogs that both prairie dogs and ferrets almost became extinct. In 1986, only 18 black-footed ferrets were alive.  In order to save these ferrets, scientists learned that they needed to save prairie dogs.  To learn more about prairie dogs and ferrets, just click here:  http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_0023_ferret_prairiedog.pdf  

When people learned how good prairie dogs can be to the environment, they began to let the prairie dogs live and build their prairie dog towns.  National parks saved their prairie dog towns.  They began reintroducing ferrets to these areas.  Today, ferrets are beginning to make a comeback, too.  

If you would like to learn more about Black-tailed prairie dogs, just click on one of these sites:

Here's a great activity book on prairie dogs:  http://prairiedogcoalition.org/docs/coloringBbook.pdf

If you have prairie dogs in your area, click on this site to learn how you can help scientists learn more about them:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Big, Wonderful Wolf!

One of my favorite creatures is a wolf.  Two kinds of wolves live in North America.  Gray wolves mostly live in the northern areas.  Red wolves live in a few southern states.  Wolves are the largest wild member of the canine or dog family.  Gray wolves can weigh over 150 pounds.  Red wolves weigh can weigh up to 80 pounds.  Sadly, wolves are endangered animals.

Wolves live in packs or groups.  Most packs have 5 to 15 members.  The packs are led by an alpha or lead male and female.  

Wolf packs live together and hunt together.  When wolves hunt together, it is easier for them to bring down big game such as deer and elk.  Each pack has a large territory and defends their territory from other wolf packs.

Wolves howl when they talk with other wolves.  When I watch movies about them on the television, I howl too!

When we were in Denali National Park, we watched wolves playing together.  Two pups were playing with two adult wolves.  They might have been their parents.  They also could have been other members of the wolf pack.  Sometimes younger members of the wolf pack babysit the pups so the older, more experienced hunters can find food.  

It was so exciting to watch the wolves playing together!  The wolves were very far away, but it was so fun to watch them!

Many times, adult male wolves leave their pack when they want to start a new pack of their own.  While they are by themselves, they are called lone wolves.  When we were camping on the Dempster Highway in Canada's Yukon Territory, we saw a lone wolf walk behind our camp site.  He was beautiful!  Mom took this photo of him through the screen of our camper.  It is my favorite wolf picture!

Some people do not like wolves.  In fact, wolves were so hated by some people that they began killing wolves by the thousands.  Wolves almost became extinct.  They are now considered an endangered animal.

Why do some people hate wolves?  Wolves are carnivorous and only eat meat.  Wolves are also predators.  A predator is an animal that kills other animals to survive.  In nature, animals want to survive.  They especially want their babies to survive.  They are not being cruel when they kill another animal.  For a very good explanation of a predator, please click here:  http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/nonpwdpubs/young_naturalist/animals/predator_prey_relationship/

Wolves are considered apex predators.  Apex means the highest.  An apex predator is an animal that is at the top of the food chain.  Humans, mountain lions, bears, alligators, and wolves are a few apex predators in North America.  

Apex predators are important to any ecosystem.  They keep other animal populations in check.   For example, if too many deer live in an area, there will not be enough food for them.  The deer may become sick or starve.  Apex predators help to keep the deer population in check.  Sometimes, however, wolves have attacked domestic animals like cattle and sheep.  This has led some people to dislike wolves.

Today, more and more people are beginning to understand how important wolves are to the environment.  Scientists learned that apex predators are important to a healthy ecosystem.  As a result, gray wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park.   Red wolves were reintroduced in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.  Now wolves are beginning to make a comeback across America.  They are making the ecosystems healthier.  But some people still do not like wolves.  

What do I think about wolves?  I think they are wonderful!!!  Of course, I'm a canine... just like wolves!

To learn more about wolves, check out one or more of these sites:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Nature detectives: Know Your Tracks, Scat, & Facts!

Have you ever been a nature detective?  When we go hiking, we like to look for animal signs.  We look for animal tracks, animal scat, and try to remember our animal facts.

As an example, I remember walking in the woods with Mom and Dad when I was very young.  We saw animal tracks that were small and pointed, almost like deer tracks.  We saw lots of acorns on the ground.  We saw places where animals had dug and wallowed in the dirt.  

Mom was thinking hard.  She was trying to put all the clues together.  Suddenly, she turned to Dad and said, "We've got to get out of here!"

She was a good detective.  She saw the animal tracks and knew that they were too small to be a deer.  She saw the acorns and thought about the animals that liked to eat them.  Then she tried to remember what animals dig and wallow in the dirt.  

It was a javelina!  Javelinas can be very dangerous.  They have long tusks that can rip a dog into pieces.  

Then we heard a javelina snorting at us from a distance.  We all stopped to listen.  We heard other noises.  It was a mother javelina, and she had babies!  Any mother is extra dangerous when she has babies!

Thankfully, they had me on my leash.  Mom and Dad quickly led me far away from the javelinas.  We were safe but it took a good nature detective to know that we were in danger in the first place!

Do you know your animal tracks?  It can be fun to look for animal when you go hiking.  Some people can identify animals by their tracks.  Some people can even identify an animal's scat (their poop).  I just smell them and know!  :)

It is not only fun to know your animal tracks.  It is smart to know your animal tracts!

If you would like more information on learning about animal tracks and their scat, just click on one of these websites:  
For information on wildlife viewing, check out these sites:  http://wildlife.state.co.us/SiteCollectionDocuments/DOW/Education/pdf/Viewing/WildlifeViewingTips.pdf

Here's a fun activity that shows you how to make plaster casts of your animal prints:  http://education.usgs.gov/kids/assets/tracks.pdf 

If you want to read a great book about animal tracks, check this book out of your local library:  Big Tracks, Little Tracks:  Following Animal Prints by Millicent Ellis Selsam