Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 26, 2000 - Issue 17

Skunk Outwits Coyote
American Indian Lore

Coyote was going along one day, feeling very hungry, when he met up with Skunk. "Hello, brother," Coyote greeted him. "You look hungry and so am I. If I lead the way, will you join me in a trick to get something to eat?"

"I will do whatever you propose," said Skunk.

"A prairie dog village is just over that hill. You go over there and lie down and play dead. I'll come along later and say to the prairie dogs, 'Come, let us have a dance over the body of our dead enemy.' "

Skunk wondered how they would ever get anything to eat by playing dead and dancing. "Why should I do this?" he asked. "Go on," Coyote said. "Puff yourself up and play dead."

Skunk went on to the prairie dog village and pretended to be dead. After a while Coyote came along and saw several prairie dogs playing outside their holes. They were keeping a distance between themselves and Skunk.

"Oh, look," cried Coyote, "our enemy lies dead before us. Come, we will have a dance to celebrate. Let everyone come out and then stop up the burrow holes."

The foolish prairie dogs did as he told them. "Now," said Coyote, "let us all stand in a big circle and dance with our eyes closed. If anyone opens his eyes to look, he will turn into something bad."

As soon as the prairie dogs began dancing with their eyes closed, Coyote killed one of them. "Well, now," he called out, "let's all open our eyes." The prairie dogs did so, and were surprised to see one lying dead. "Oh, dear," said Coyote, "look at this poor fellow. He opened his eyes and died. Now, all of you, close your eyes and dance again. Don't look, or you too will die."

They began to dance once more, and one by one Coyote drew them out of the dance circle and killed them. At last, one of the prairie dogs became suspicious and opened his eyes. "Oh, Coyote is killing us!" he cried, and all the survivors ran to unstop their holes and seek safety in the burrows.

Skunk then stood up, laughing at how easily Coyote had worked his trick. He helped gather up some dry firewood and they began roasting the prairie dogs that Coyote had killed.

The cooking meat smelled so good that Coyote decided he wanted to eat the best of it himself. "Let's run a race," he said. "The one that wins will have his choice of the most delicious prairie dogs."

"No," replied Skunk, "you are too swift. I'm a slow runner and can never beat you."

"Well, I will tie a rock to my foot," Coyote said.

"If you will tie on a big rock, I will race you."

They decided to race around the bottom of the hill. "While I am tying this rock to my foot," Coyote said, "you go ahead. I'll give you a start and then catch you."

Skunk began to run and was soon out of sight around the hill. Coyote tied a rock to his foot and followed, slowly at first, but he soon kicked the rock loose and doubled his speed. Along the way, however, Skunk had found a brush pile, and he dashed in there and hid.

As soon as he saw Coyote go racing past, Skunk turned back to the fire. He raked all the roasted prairie dogs out of the coals, except for two small bony ones that he did not want. Then he cut off the tails and stuck them back in the ashes, and carried the meat away to the brush pile.

Meanwhile Coyote was still loping around the hill, confident that Skunk was running just ahead of him. As he hurried along, he said to himself, "I wonder where that fool Skunk is? I did not know that he could run so fast." He soon circled back to the cooking fire and saw the prairie dog tails sticking out of the ashes. He seized one and it slipped out. He tried another one. "Oh, but they are well cooked," he said. He tried another one. Then he suspected that something was wrong.

Taking a stick, Coyote raked through the coals, but he found only the two bony prairie dogs that Skunk had rejected. "Someone must have stolen our meat," he said, and then ate the two small tasteless ones.

Skunk, who by this time had feasted on the delicious meat, had crept to the top of the hill and was looking down at Coyote. As Coyote began searching all around to see who might have stolen the meat, Skunk threw some prairie dog bones down upon him.

Coyote glanced up and saw him. "You took all the delicious prairie dogs!" he cried. "Give me some of them."

"No," Skunk answered. "We ran a race for them. I beat you. I'm going to eat all of them."

Coyote begged and begged for some of the delicious prairie dogs, but while he was still pleading, Skunk swallowed the last morsel of meat. He was a better trickster than Coyote.

Here are pictures for you to print and color:


Prairie Dog



The Prairie Dog

Editor's Note: In this issue, we're going to explore how the survival of one species depends on the survival of another. Because the prairie dog population has been reduced, the black-footed ferret has become an endangered species.

The scientific name for the black-tailed prairie dog "ludovicianus," is the Latin form of Ludwig or Louis, relating back to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, when prairie dogs were first collected for science.

The prairie dog is a burrowing member of the order Rodentia, the largest group of mammals in the world. An adult black-tailed prairie dog is between 12 and 16 inches long and generally weighs between 1.5 and 2.5 pounds. Its tail is covered with hair and is about one-fourth of the animal's total length. Its body is tan to pale brown in color, its underparts are white to buffy white, and its tail is tipped with black. The prairie dog's legs are short, but its feet are large and have well-developed claws, especially on the forefeet. Its head is broad and rounded, and its eyes are fairly large.

The black-tailed prairie dog is one of five species of prairie dogs found in North America. It is the most abundant and widely distributed species and is the only prairie dog found in Nebraska. It is found throughout the Great Plains from southern Canada to just inside Mexico. The western edge of its range is along the Rocky Mountains, and the eastern edge follows the natural boundary between tall and mid-grass prairie. In Nebraska, prairie dogs are found roughly in the western two-thirds of the state.

Black-tailed prairie dogs live in colonies or "towns" that range in size from as small as one acre to several thousand acres. The largest prairie dog colony on record was in Texas, and was about 100 miles wide, 250 miles long and contained an estimated 400 million animals. It is estimated that in the late 1 800s, some 700 million acres of North American rangeland were inhabited by prairie dogs. Habitat changes and extensive eradication efforts have reduced the acreage by about 90 to 95 percent from historic levels.

Areas of short and mid-grass rangeland overgrazed by livestock are the prairie dog's preferred habitat. Prairie dog colonies are most recognizable by the mounds and holes at their burrow entrances. A colony will typically have 30 to 50 burrow entrances per acre. The animal's burrow system can be quite complex and extensive. Mounds of excavated soil around the burrow entrance are generally cone-shaped and vary from one to three feet in height and from three to 10 feet in diameter. These mounds serve as lookout points and serve to prevent water from entering the burrow system. Tunnels are generally three to six feet below the surface and about 15 feet long, although burrows have been reported to reach depths of 15 feet. Burrow systems typically include several chambers, including one near the entrance where the prairie dog can sit and listen for activity above ground, and one or more nest chambers where they sleep and care for their young.

The fact that prairie dogs live in colonies indicates they are highly social animals. The largest social unit is the colony or town. Towns are often divided into "wards" by topographical barriers such as roads, ridges or trees, and are generally five to 10 acres in size. Although prairie dogs in one ward may be able to see and hear animals of an adjacent ward, movement among wards is unusual. Wards are divided into several smaller prairie dog social units, called "coteries." Each coterie generally consists of one adult male, one to four adult females, and any offspring less than two years old. Members of one coterie defend their territory from invasion by members of other coteries.

Prairie dogs are active during the day, usually from about sunrise to sunset, and during summer they spend about one-third to one-half of the daylight hours feeding. Another third is involved in social interactions with other colony members as well as working on burrows and mounds and responding to alarm calls. The remainder of daylight is spent underground, especially during mid-day when temperatures above ground are high.

The black-tailed prairie dog is active all year. In winter, it remains underground for several days when weather is severe, but comes out on sunny afternoons to look for food and bask in the sun.

Black-tailed prairie dogs exhibit an elaborate communication system. At least 11 separate calls have been identified, and a variety of postures and displays are utilized. Calls range from signals of alarm to "all-clear." Physical contact is another method of prairie dog communication. Mouth-to-mouth contact is used to identify coterie members from strangers, and grooming among coterie members is common.

Grasses are the preferred food of the prairie dog, and generally makes up about three quarters of its diet. In the fall, broadleaf forbs become more important as green grass is less available. In winter, any available green vegetation is consumed. In the spring and summer, each prairie dog consumes up to two pounds of vegetation per week.

In addition to the vegetation it eats, the prairie dog also clips, but does not eat, much vegetation within its colony. This is probably done to keep the vegetation clipped short to provide an unobstructed view of approaching predators. Over a period of time, clipping, foraging and digging activities can alter the composition of the vegetation in a prairie dog town. Short native grasses like buffalograss and the grama grasses are favored when an area is used by prairie dogs for a long period of time.

A prairie dog reaches sexual maturity after its first winter and has one litter per year. Breeding takes place in March and early April, and a litter of usually four to six young is born 30 to 35 days later. Young prairie dogs are born hairless, helpless, and with their eyes closed. They remain underground for about six weeks and first emerge from the den in May or June. They are weaned at this time and begin feeding on green vegetation. They reach adult size by fall.

Although the prairie dog has been known to live for at least eight years in captivity, its average life span in the wild is usually three to four years. In addition to actions of man, the prairie dog faces many natural predators. Badgers are probably the main predator, but coyotes, weasels, golden eagles, hawks, swift fox, and other predators take prairie dogs. Bullsnakes and rattlesnakes take young prairie dogs but generally not adults. The black-footed ferret was once a primary prairie dog predator, but it is now considered an endangered species and no wild ferrets have been verified in Nebraska since the 1940s.

A prairie dog is susceptible to a number of diseases, the most notable being plague. Plague is an infectious disease transmitted by the bite of an infected flea. Plague can be devastating to prairie dog populations, wiping out entire colonies in some areas. This disease was known as "black death" in the 1 300s when about one-third of Europe's human population was lost. Although it can be transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected flea, plague has not been found in prairie dogs in Nebraska and is now treatable in humans.

In many ways, a prairie dog town can be considered a biological oasis. Many wildlife species associate with prairie dogs. Some species feed on prairie dogs, but others utilize the burrow systems or the unique habitat to fulfill their needs. Vacant burrows are used by cottontail rabbits, several species of small rodents and by burrowing owls. Meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows, and other birds are found in greater numbers in prairie dog towns than in the surrounding rangeland because they are attracted to the open spaces, where seeds and insects are more accessible.

But, the prairie dog is not always compatible with agricultural interests. By eating and clipping vegetation, the prairie dog does compete with livestock. The economic impact of the prairie dog on rangeland is difficult to assess and depends on a number of factors including the density of prairie dogs, the amount of rainfall, the presence of livestock, and the condition of rangeland in the surrounding area.

However, the prairie dog and large grazing animals can benefit from each other's presence. In areas where there is taller vegetation, domestic livestock keep vegetation cropped low, which allows the prairie dog to occur in areas where it wouldn't otherwise be found. On the other hand, when bison roamed the plains in massive numbers, they spent considerable time foraging in prairie dog towns, as does livestock today. The prairie dog's feeding and clipping activities stimulate new plant growth that is of higher quality and more desirable to livestock. Consequently, the loss of some rangeland to prairie dogs can easily be overestimated if livestock are also using the area.

Most landowners are tolerant of small numbers of prairie dogs but are concerned about large colonies or expanding populations. Effective control measures safe for humans and the environment are available and are used by landowners and governmental agencies. Some recent research is showing promise for non lethal measures to control prairie dog numbers, including the installation of barrier fences in the colonies, and fencing to exclude livestock.

In addition to their importance to landowners and other wildlife species, prairie dogs are also important to wildlife observers, photographers, and recreational shooters.

Prairie Dog Facts:

1. Where they live

At one time there were millions of Prairie dogs living on the Great Plains. These ground squirrels lived in towns made up of underground tunnels or burrows.

Today, prairie dogs are found in southern Saskatchewan (Val Marie area ) and on grasslands throughout most of western United States to New Mexico.

2. A prairie dog's home

Their underground tunnels connect to rooms. There are bedrooms lined with dried grass, nurseries ,bathrooms, and a listening room which is close to the entrance. Here the prairie dog listens for danger before going outside.

The entrance to the prairie dog's burrow is surrounded by a pile of soil. This mound serves as a lookout and protects the burrow against floods.

The tunnels go down about three meters ( or ten feet )and can be 15 meters ( 50 feet) from one entrance to another.

3. Appearance

These mammals are ground squirrels with brownish fur and white underparts. They have large eyes, short tails ( white or black tipped ), and small rounded ears. They are rodents and have strong front teeth and sharp claws for digging. The prairie dog is about the size of a football (30 cm.)

4. Interesting facts

The prairie dogs got their name from the sound that they make when danger is near. They give a warning barks or yips.

There are five species of prairie dogs.

Besides serving as food for many predators, their tunnels provide homes for Burrowing Owls and other small animals.

Prairie dogs are most active during the cool hours of daylight. Most of their time is spent eating . They also like to visit and groom each other.

When the prairies became farmland, the prairie dogs were forced out.

Prairie dogs nuzzle and kiss when they meet. But if prairie dogs from different colonies meet, they stare, chatter, flick their tails, and may fight or chase each other.

As a pet, Prairie dogs can live to be 8 to 10 years old ( compared to 3 to 5 years in the wild. )

5. Adaptations

The front paws have extra long claws for digging tunnels.
They eat a lot to store up fat for winter.
They sleep in the winter.
Prairie dogs do not need to drink water. They can get all of the water needed from the leafy foods they eat.

6. Protection

Guard dogs keep watch by standing on a mound of dirt, and let out a warning yelp or bark .

Prairie dogs also signal with their tails. A flick of the tail means "danger".

7. Enemies

Many predators hunt these rodents including badgers,weasels, ferrets, hawks, owls, coyotes,foxes, bobcats and snakes.

Badgers try to catch prairie dogs in the daytime by rushing into a colony. At night, they dig into the entrance hoping to surprise the sleeping prairie dogs.

Prairie dogs in the wild live 3 to 5 years, because of all the predators. Man has hunted and poisoned them.

8. Food

Prairie dogs feed on leaves,grasses and grass roots ,weeds, seeds. and other plants (including crops like alfalfa and corn). They also eat grasshoppers, cutworms, bug and beetles.

9. The Young

Baby prairie dogs are born with no hair. The female has one litter ( four pups )per year. Pups stay in the burrows for about six or seven weeks.

10. Endangered animals

Some species of prairie dogs are endangered or threatened. The black-footed ferret, Burrowing Owl, and Prairie Rattlesnake are endangered because they rely on the prairie dog for food and shelter.

Do you want to hear what a prairie dog sounds like? Click the links below!

Prairie Dog Yip

Prairie Dog Warning

Here are some prairie dog sites for you to explore

Prairie Dog-Keep the Wild Alive

Black-tailed Prairie Dog Facts

Black-footed Ferret

Description: The black-footed ferret is a small weasel-like animal with a black mask around its eyes and black legs and feet. It is between 18 and 22 inches long, including its tail. It weighs up to 2 1/2 pounds.

Range: Through captive breeding, the black-footed ferret once again occurs in the wild at Shirley Basin, Wyoming, where they were reintroduced first in 1991. The last known population in Meeteetse, Wyoming, succumbed to canine distemper. The survivors were removed to captivity. It is thought to have formerly ranged from Mexico to Canada through the western plains states.

Habitat: The black-footed ferret lives almost exclusively in prairie dog towns of the Great Plains. Prairie dog towns are a community network of prairie dog dens and tunnels that can be hundreds of acres. Black-footed ferrets also den in prairie dog burrows.

Diet: Prairie dogs, which are often equal or larger in size than the ferret, make up 90% of the its diet. Its diet is occasionally supplemented with rabbits and rodents.

Social Organization: Black-footed ferrets are thought to be solitary hunters which use a range of around 100 acres each. A male ferret's territory may overlap that of several females with which he mates. Females raise alone a litter of about three to four kits. Black-footed ferrets live underground as much as possible in order to avoid their natural enemies, which are hawks, bobcats, owls, badgers and coyotes.

Threats to Survival: The decline of the black-footed ferret is almost entirely due to government-sponsored poisoning of prairie dog towns and development of farms, roads, towns, etc. over prairie dog colonies. Thehighly specialized ferret relies on prairie dogs for food and shelter. Prairie dog towns have been reduced by 98% since the turn of the century, though recent studies have proven that the grass-eating prairie dogs are not significant competition with livestock for forage. The final blow to the wild ferrets came in the form of canine distemper, which is always fatal. Any unknown groups of ferrets that may remain in the wild are almost certainly inbreeding.

Conservation Status: Recently considered by many to be the most endangered mammal in North America, the black-footed ferret is listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the IUCN Red Data Book. Sightings of black-footed ferrets are frequently reported, but in most cases these can be traced to escaped domestic ferrets, which are often mistaken for black-footed ferrets.

Zoo Programs -- SSP: The captive breeding program began with just 18 animals at the Wyoming Game and Fish Research Facility. Fortunately, the ferret breeds readily in captivity, like its close relative, the mink. This population has increased to about 330 animals, which are split between the Wyoming facility, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, Louisville Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the National Zoo's Conservation and Research Center, the Phoenix Zoo and the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo. The program has four goals: successful captive breeding, conservation education, habitat preservation and teaching captive ferrets survival skills before they are reintroduced to the wild. One recent development in the program was the successful artificial insemination of three black-footed ferrets, resulting in seven kits.

The Black-footed Ferret

Wild Times-the Black-footed Ferret



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