Birds Under Systemic Attack in the U.S. Under Trump

Young Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, dressed in white garb designed to emulate an adult Whooping Crane, and a young, 2-month old Whooping Crane “colt”.  Researchers only interact with the young while wearing such outfits, to avoid any human imprinting on the young.  Patuxent has played a vital role in conserving Whooping Cranes and bringing them back from the edge of extinction. Thanks to the GOP and this administration, the entire Whooping Crane program and its minuscule $1.5 million cost is being eliminated.

There are around 600 Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 30% of those in captivity. Of the few hundred birds in the wild, most breed near Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, while a smaller and more recently established breeding population is found in central Wisconsin. The species has become reestablished in the wild only due to strong conservation measures and to the diligent and long-term efforts of captive breeding and reintroduction programs such as the 51-year year effort at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When the program started in 1966, only 42 Whooping Cranes were left. The dedicated efforts of Patuxent scientists were vital for bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.

In 2016, Patuxent scientists developed a plan that would wind down their captive breeding program, with a plan to end the program in another 10 to 15 years.  Thanks to the Trump administration, that program is now in the process of being disbanded immediately.  In a multi-TRILLION dollar federal budget, the $1.5 million U.S. Geological Survey budget for the Whooping Crane program was a minuscule drop in the bucket.  But with a GOP political ideology that’s focused on corporate profit and short-term financial gain over ANY environmental concern, the death of the USGS’s Whooping Crane program is just one small part of a sinister, death-by-a-thousand-cuts to wildlife conservation in the United States.

The proposed cuts in both the proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 Trump budgets are more a declaration of war on the environment than they are a sound, fiscally responsible means of streamlining federal programs. The Ecosystems mission area of the USGS is responsible for an array of wildlife research and management programs: The Trump budget proposes a 30% cut in those programs for the coming fiscal year.  Many programs are slated for complete elimination, including the popular Cooperative Research Units, a network of an onsite USGS presence on academic campuses across the US.  Designed to foster local cooperative research on wildlife issues, the entire $25 million budget for the Coop units for 2019 is likely to be eliminated. The Climate and Land Use program is being forced to change its name to “Land Resources”, with nearly ALL climate-related research eliminated (as well as much of the landscape research).  Eliminating even the WORD “climate” is a common theme in proposed budgets across ALL Federal agencies. The “Energy and Minerals” Mission Area is the one USGS mission that maintains most of its funding, but the proposed changes are startling in scope.  While funding would remain stable or even increase for mineral resource exploitation, the entire “Environmental Health” program, designed to assess potential environmental consequences of resource extraction on Federal lands, is slated to be eliminated.  In other words…we want to exploit the Federal lands that YOU AND I own, but we don’t want to even look at the environmental consequences of that exploitation.

Other agencies in the Department of Interior are also slated for severe cuts, including cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The GOP goal is to transition the primary focus of DOI to the exploitation of our natural resources, with environmental concern and conservation efforts being severely curtailed.  The Endangered Species Act, originally championed under the GOP and the Nixon Administration, is similarly under attack, with multiple efforts in Congress underway to undermine the law.

600 Whooping Cranes on the planet.  600 birds, found in only two concentrated breeding areas, and thus extremely susceptible to some disturbance or disease event, yet while the GOP attempts to raise our military spending by a ridiculous $70-80 BILLION a year, they have the gall to point to the $1.5 million Whooping Crane cost as a “luxury” that our Nation can’t afford.  Not to mention a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the rich at a time when corporate profits are at record levels.

There’s so many disgusting things happening in Washington right now that it’s hard to stay on top of all the latest headlines.  Russia-gate, potential impeachment, obvious racism and bigotry emanating from the president himself (no, this president doesn’t get a capital “p”), mass killings and gun control issues…it’s overwhelming.  Conservation stories such as these are having a hard time getting any play in the mainstream press.  With the damage that’s being done RIGHT NOW, it will likely take decades for us to recover, after what’s shaping up to be four years of continuous and widespread attacks on our Nation’s wild resources, and the long-established programs designed to protect and manage them.

I just hope birds like the Whooping Crane can weather the storm until Americans come to their damned senses.

Killer Grizzlies, Ice Twisters, and more – Science, Nature, and other news

Killer Grizzlies, “Ice Twisters”, and more…Science, nature, and other news of the week. Click on each headline for the story itself.

Grizzly Bear - Ursus arctos

Taken this morning, A Grizzly Bear, lurking JUST outside the Brandon Valley Middle School attended by my son. STAY BRAVE, MY SON!! We finally have a leader…nay…a HERO…who will stand up for you and your fellow children.  No longer will you cower in fear each day at school, wondering if…wondering WHEN...the next child will be taken by a Grizzly Bear. Prepare for firearm training, my son! Soon you will be able to defend yourself!

Grizzly Bear Scourge Killing Thousands of American Children — With all the testimony this week of potential Trump Cabinet members, the most insightful, meaningful words of wisdom came from Betsy Devos, the woman who (shockingly) is about to lead the Department of Education.  When asked about her stance on guns in schools, Devos first deflected, stating that it should be a local choice.  When pushed, Devos spoke of the one issue that wasn’t discussed NEARLY enough during the fall campaign…the deadly scourge of Grizzly Bear attacks on our children at school.  Yes, that’s right folks, FINALLY we have a Trump Cabinet member who “gets it”, who understands the daily struggles of everyday Americans. Who hasn’t worried about Grizzly Bear attacks when dropping off their child at school in the morning? Betsy, we love you.  You’ve proven you are one of US, everyday Americans struggling with everyday, life-or-death problems.  Hopefully under your watch, teachers, or…better yet…children THEMSELVES will be allowed to carry semi-automatic weapons to combat the Grizzly Bear scourge.  God bless you, Betsy Devos!

Cat toll on wildlife tallied – We had a neighbor with a cat that started showing up on their front step.  They adopted it, although for the much of the time, they kept it as an outdoor cat. Every night it would be out on its own, and often during the day as well.  It was a sweet cat! It was also an evil, bird-killing machine that was seemingly always in our yard. There would be many, many times I’d look out our sun room at the bird feeders, only to see the cat crouched and hiding by a nearby bush. Over the years, the visits to our yard became less frequent, either because 1) it was scared to death of me chasing it out of the yard again, or 2) it progressively got fatter and less agile.  He took a toll on birds in my yard.  I often witnessed him killing a bird, and other times, I’d just find the aftermath, with a pile of feathers or a dead mangled body. One cat, one yard, and likely many dozens upon dozens of kills.  So what is the toll of cats on wildlife?  As this story notes, a wildlife rehab group in Virginia tallied cat-related animal injuries over the years, and found they treated over 80 species that had been attacked by cats, including over 60 different bird species.  This past summer, the neighbor cat disappeared one day, as it didn’t return home after (yet another) night left outside on its own.  I love what pets bring into a home, but admit I was NOT fond of the way the neighbor cat was treated, and what it was allowed to do. Leaving it outside all the time ended up costing it its life, but it also ended up costing the lives of countless small critters over the years.

Tornado - 1884

What’s thought to be the world’s oldest photo of a tornado, taken in 1884. This photo always terrified me, ever since I saw it as a kid. It just looks…evil. And hey, GREAT! THANKS SCIENCE! In addition to every other way a tornado can kill you, now we also know that the inside of a funnel is quite cold! “Ice Twisters”, the SyFy movie, may have actually been a documentary!

Ice Twisters!! — Several weeks ago, my son and I were flipping through the channels, and as we passed the SyFy channel, we saw a movie called “Ice Twisters!” was on.  Typical SyFy movie…government research gone wrong, with drone-related atmospheric research somehow resulting in deadly “Ice Twisters” that were ravaging the landscape. In the movie, the cause of death for those impacted by an Ice Twister wasn’t necessarily wind…no…they froze to death!  Yes, twisters that were THAT cold!  Well, it turns out there’s a hint (the slightest hint) of truth in the show.  The story goes back to 1955, when three employees from a radio station in Nebraska were taking cover from a tornado in the basement of an old stone house. The vortex passed directly overhead, and as it did so, the structure above was blown away.  The three people in the basement noted the difficulty in breathing as the tornado passed overhead, but also felt the temperature dropping very sharply.  Researchers studying the case found that the temperature likely dropped from around 27° Celsius to 12° as the funnel went overhead.  The drop in temperature and the difficulty they had in breathing were related. The density of the air in the funnel would have been equivalent to being at nearly 30,000 feet in elevation, and as warmer, denser air is sucked into low pressure of the funnel, the expansion causes the large drop in temperature.  Touche’, SyFy, Touche’.  Never again will I make fun of your (admittedly sometimes entertaining) movies.  Ice Twisters was simply a movie ahead of its time, ahead of the science behind it.

Move over “Polar Vortex”! Now we have “Atmospheric Rivers” — I just love when the mainstream media gets excited and jumps all over a “new” scientific phenomenon. A few years ago, somebody put a label of “Polar Vortex” on the same kinds of cold snaps the U.S. has always experienced, evidently deciding that just calling it “winter” as we always have wasn’t exciting enough.  Today, I see we have a new entry in the journalistic annals of creating new and exciting ways to describe phenomena that have been around forever. A very significant precipitation event did just recently occur in California, but the same kind of event has occurred countless times throughout history.  The term “Atmospheric Rivers” itself is evidently old, mentioned by a couple of researchers back in the 1990s. Other terms for it in California have been the “Pineapple Express” or “Hawaiian Express”.  Reading this story, however, and you’d think it was the first time such a phenomenon had been discovered or discussed.

February 2016 Temperature Anomalies

An image that shows global temperature anomalies in February of 2016. February was the most “anomalous” month in history up to that point, with the greatest departure from the “normal” for any month that had ever been measured. 2016 as a whole ended up setting yet another global temperature record. Leading the way…much of the Arctic. This graphic shows a temperature anomaly of nearly 12° for much of Arctic, but even greater departures from normal were found this fall and early winter.

3rd straight year of record global temperatures — For the first time ever, we’ve now had three straight years where all-time global temperature records have been broken. As stated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, ““What’s going on in the Arctic is really very impressive; this year was ridiculously off the chart”. Parts of the Arctic were 20 to 30 degrees (Fahrenheit) above normal for much of the fall and early winter, including days with temperatures hovering at or above freezing even at the North Pole. Globally, levels of sea ice have never been lower.  Irrefutable evidence of the continued onslaught of climate change…not that more evidence is needed at this stage, but it comes at a time when a new incoming President and his Party are about to take power in Washington D.C.  Which leads into…

Mixed bag for Trump’s Cabinet on Climate Change — Not a single story, but a collection of stories related to confirmation hearings for Trump’s Cabinet members this week. First the good…incoming Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, openly disagreed with Trump’s statements on climate change.  He stated “The climate is changing, and man is an influence”, certainly welcome words from a man tasked to manage the Department that oversees Federal lands and natural resources.  Responses related to the issue of climate change were more reserved and mixed from other Trump nominees.  Scott Pruitt, tasked to lead the Environmental Protection Agency said “I do not believe climate change is a hoax”, but he stopped short of saying man was the major cause, or that we need regulation and change to mitigate the effects. Given that EPA is the Federal Agency that can potentially regulate greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not comforting to see a lack of conviction about regulatory action.  The aforementioned Betsy Devos, who could very well be in charge of the Department of Education (GOD I hope not), didn’t specifically comment on climate change in her confirmation hearing, but did offer a simple statement of “I support the teaching of great science“.  Note the word “simple”, a statement that could be attributed to MUCH of her testimony this week.  It’s not encouraging when the Secretary of Education is clearly not even aware of the many programs her agency is responsible for.  Rex Tillerson, an oilman slated to become Secretary of State, did state that the climate is changing and that greenhouse gases are a cause. However, he also stated that the science was murky, saying “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”  Tillerson’s comments were perhaps the most representative of what’s likely to happen in a Trump administration.  In the face of overwhelming evidence that’s slowly convincing even a scientifically illiterate American public, the stance of many Cabinet members was to recognize climate change as “real”, yet simultaneously state the science is very uncertain. In short, they’re setting the stage to potentially monitor the situation, but not do a damn thing about it.

Sit on your butt and watch your life drain away — That’s the basic message of new research that assessed the biologic “age” of cells, related to the level of physical activity.  Telomeres, little caps on the ends of DNA strands within a cell, gradually shorten as a person ages. Telomeres protect your chromosomes, and a shortening of telomeres is associated with cell “aging”, and increased likelihood of diseases including diabetes and cancer. Interesting study, and one of the first to take this form of measurement and connect it with activity levels.  That’s the price of blogging, I guess…sitting here for hours trying to come up with interesting and clever stories, all while my damned telomeres shorten by the second.

Eating and Sitting

A family sitting AND eating at the same time. As science has proven this week, this could be one of the most dangerous aspects of American life. This, or rampaging Grizzly Bears around our children’s schools.

Don’t eat, live longer — To riff off of Charlton Heston…Damn you, science.  DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!  FIRST you have the story above about deadly Ice Twisters, amplifying my already well-ingrained fear of tornadoes.  Then you have the story of your DNA rotting away while you sit still.  And now, this story, noting that restricting calories is one way to ensure a longer life. Survival and health of rhesus monkeys was found to be significantly higher as caloric consumption was reduced.  Great.  What.  The.  Hell.  My favorite pastime is lounging on the couch in the basement, hiding from tornadoes, eating a bowl of ice cream.  Little did I know how much I was putting my life in danger. As a scientist, and as an avowed atheist, I do find it incredibly fascinating that so many things that human beings crave in life, are inherently bad for you.  Eating fatty and sugary foods, relaxing and taking it easy.  From an evolutionary and biologic standpoint, does that make sense?  Does it make sense that the very things we crave can kill us? How does simple biology explain that?  It’s times like this where my belief in a “god” may not be reinforced, but it does reinforce my belief in a “devil”.

10,000-km long “wave” on Venus — The Akatsuki spacecraft captured a spectacular image of Venus in December, marked by a massive, vertical “smile” that stretched nearly pole-to-pole.  The 10,000-km long feature is thought to be a “gravity wave”, which would make it the largest gravity wave observed in the solar system.  It’s thought to have developed from air movement over mountain ranges on the surface of Venus, with the feature then propagating higher into the thick Venetian atmosphere. However, such a feature isn’t easily explained by the current understanding of the surface of Venus and near-surface atmospheric conditions. Either some other explanation is in order, or our understanding of the surface/atmospheric interactions on Venus needs to be reevaluated.


In the News – Week of October 23rd


This snowball brought to you by the effects of climate change?

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week.  Not many bird stories this week, but some good science stories.  Click on the links for the actual stories.

“Global Warming” causing cold winters — James Inhofe, jackass senator from Oklahoma (pardon my value judgement, but the man IS indeed a jackass from the standpoint of any scientist), famously strolled onto the Senate Floor a few years ago and presented a snowball.  PROOF, he said, that global warming was a hoax! A sham! A deception, set up by evil scientists like myself!!  How can global warming be real, if snow was falling in the DC area?  Sigh. In the last decade, the term”climate change” has been used much more frequently than “global warming”, and with good reason.  Yes, temperatures are warming overall, but the impacts also impact precipitation patterns, storm severity, and atmospheric flows, meaning “warming” is just one component of climate change.  As this story point out, severe warming in the Arctic is affecting the position of the jet stream, making it more likely that “wavy” jet stream patterns will occur in winter.  As a result, winters become more variable, with cold snaps become more common as a wavy jet stream brings colder air down from the Arctic. Sorry Senator Inhofe!  That snowball you used as a prop may have been an example of the effects of climate change!!

Heading to California for a long nap — I’ve only been fortunate enough to come across bats on a  handful of occasions.  If we take a walk in the late evening, just after sunset, we’ve occasionally seen individual bats flying about. Growing up, I remember seeing them flying around streetlights at night, scooping up the insects that the lights attract. The most memorable encounter?  Moving the portable air conditioner out of my wife’s grandmother’s kitchen window in the fall…only to have a live bat plop down on the kitchen counter. We interrupted his daytime roost!! Cool creatures, that I wish I’d had more chances to see. This is a neat story about Hoary Bats, one of the bigger species in North America.  Some bats will hibernate, some will migrate when weather gets cold, but the Hoary Bat is unique in that it first migrates to California, and then settles in for hibernation.  When I read stories like this, it always makes you realize how very little we know about the world around us…

Lesser Meadow Katydid - Conocephalus

Coming soon to a dinner plate near you? No thanks!

Edible Bugs — Can they replace beef?  NO. THEY CANNOT. I have nothing further to say on the matter.

Yo Dude…Surf’s Up!! — From the realm of “pure” science that doesn’t seem to have any practical application, some research on Mute Swans, with a finding that they will sometimes “windsurf” as they move on the surface of the water.  This researcher on 3 occasions observed Mute Swans sitting on the surface of the water, then opening their wings to catch the wind and “windsurf” across the water’s surface.  The REAL story here for me, from the perspective of a scientist?  That this dude was able to get an actual journal publication about this!  Publish-or-perish, the  mantra for many scientists, and this dude was able to publish something based on what he saw during his lunch hour!  Bravo…

And you think your life sucks? — I believe I’ve seen this before, in a David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary.  The Pearlfish is a species of fish often found in sandy shallows where there’s not a lot of protective cover.  It’s solution to not getting eaten? 1) Find a Sea Cucumber 2) Enter it’s anus and crawl inside.  Lovely!  Something to think about the next time you think your life sucks…it could always be worse.

Unseen moons may be circling Uranus — My son would have some crude jokes to say about this story…

Donald Trump

Brain activity declines as lying becomes more frequent? Why am I showing a picture of Donald Trump next to this story? Must be coincidence…

Brain reacts less as lies become more frequent — Scientific proof of why this election cycle has been so god-awful!  Fact checkers have certainly been kept busy over the last several months.  As this story notes, your brain gets conditioned to frequent lying, where it reacts less as lie after lie pile up.  Less brain activity with more lying…that certainly explains Donald Trump!!  He’s been at it so long during this campaign that you can hardly blame him for his many slip-ups.

ET Phoning Earth — I hate the mainstream media at times. I understand the competitive nature of journalists and the desire to be the one to break a big story.  From an economic perspective, I get the focus on the trivial by places like CNN, as unfortunately, they’re much more likely to get a lot of “clicks” on a story about Kim Kardashian’s latest hair-do than they are to get clicks on some boring science story.  But what I REALLY HATE is how everything is sensationalized, how a story always has to be “sexed up” to make it more controversial and eye-catching.  Hence this story, with the provocative headline of “Strange messages coming from the stars are probably aliens“.  The scientists involved here also deserve some of the blame, as it’s incredibly, ridiculously premature to assign these “strange messages” to an alien source, but it’s the story in the Independent that really plays that aspect of the work.  Interesting work, but I’ll need a hell of a lot more proof of the source of this signals before donning my tinfoil hat.  There are just far, far too many things we don’t know about the universe to unequivocally associate the unknown to some alien source.

Carolina Parakeet - Drawing

Carolina Parakeets were once occasionally found here in South Dakota, so why not parrots in Siberia? This is one of the first bird drawing I did when I started several years ago.

Parrot fossil from…Siberia?  — A parrot fossil dating from around 16 million years ago was unearthed near Lake Baikal in Siberia.  This marks the furthest north a fossil from a parrot-like species has been found.  It was warmer in the Milocene when this bird was living in the region, but not as tropical as the climate where most parrot species are found.  It’s not exactly unprecedented though. In North America, our own Carolina Parakeet was found over a good chunk of the eastern United States, and there are even reports that it had occasionally been found up here in South Dakota.

Got the sniffles? Go milk a Tasmanian Devil — I believe this is sound medical advice, based on this story!  Researchers have found that the milk from a Tasmanian Devil contains peptides that are able to kill hard-to-kill “superbugs”, bacteria that are becoming immune to our most commonly used antibiotics.  I envision a world where everybody keeps their own small herd of Tasmanian Devils, faithfully milking them every morning and use Devil Milk on their morning cereal to keep sickness at bay.

Two-thirds of Earth’s wildlife gone in last 40 years — Well this is a depressing story.  A study by the World Wildlife Fund has found that almost 60% of vertebrate populations have disappeared from the wild since 1970. Numbers a dire across all ecosystems, but are particularly bad for freshwater ecosystems, with over 80% population declines.  Good. Lord.  It’s not exactly surprising, particularly the fresh-water habitat finding.  I’m a fisherman, and have been since I was a boy.  We rarely bother going fishing in eastern South Dakota any more.  The rivers are E.Coli-filled cess pools of ag runoff and animal waste, and every year more and more lakes in the region are being assigned as mercury threats, with fishermen warned to either not eat the fish or to severely limit how much is consumed.  And yet there are groups out there that want to ABOLISH the Environmental Protection Agency…something that even our Republican presidential candidate has promised to do.  It sickens me to think what we’re leaving behind for our children…

Luke Perry AARP eligible —  I’m of an age where I definitely remember 90210 and Melrose Place.  I wasn’t a big fan and didn’t watch, but my wife did, as did many other people I knew back then. Well, evidently being “of an age” where I remember 90210 means I AM FREAKING OLD!! The reason this story caught my attention? Luke Perry from 90210 turned 50 and became AARP eligible…as have I recently.  Sigh.  With that, I’ll sign off from another week’s worth of news.  Now where are my damned glasses? And cane.  And prescriptions…sigh….



Your tax dollars at work – Science or Birds?

Photo of Double-crested Cormorant - By Terry Sohl

Double-crested Cormorant. Clearly by the evil look in his eye, you can tell he’s up to no good. Clearly, this 2 pound bird is a much better fisherman than all the “sportsmen” in the Pacific Northwest, as cormorants have been (wrongly) accused of destroying salmon populations in the region.

Ah, the perks of being a government scientist.  The high pay.  The adulation. The outpouring and love from an American public that doesn’t seem to believe in science any more, a public that seems quite content to ignore those pesky temperature increases on their thermometer, a public that would rather believe that great-great-grandpa Eddie used to ride around on a dinosaur than believe in evolution.  It just keeps better and better.  At least there’s the work, right?  The thought of doing real, unbiased SCIENCE for the public good?

Well sure, there is the work itself.  It’s just a wee bit disheartening however to DO the work the government asks you to do, but have that work ignored by said government.  With that as background…

If you’re not aware of it, there have been active campaigns against the evil Double-crested Cormorant for decades now, with interest groups (primarily fishermen and other “sportsmen”) claiming that the birds are eating all their fish, and therefor they must be destroyed.  It’s been in multiple locations, from the South, to the Great Lakes, and most recently, on the Columbia River basin where fisherman are bemoaning declining salmon populations.  One COULD blame over-fishing.  One COULD also blame a much warmer northern Pacific (global warming anyone?) that has been shown to be taking a toll on salmon.  But no…of course it’s none of that according to these brilliant “sportsmen”.  It’s the evil Double-crested Cormorant that is eating all of “their” salmon.

You might wonder how a species that’s co-existed with salmon for thousands of years suddenly is (supposedly) single-handedly wiping out Cormorant populations.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was also wondering, and thus tasked their biologists to study the issue.  The conclusion from the government scientists?  Double-crested Cormorants weren’t having much of an impact, if any, on salmon populations in the Columbia.  The next course of action by Fish & Wildlife?  Giving their stamp of approval on a plan to KILL 10,000 Double-crested Cormorants in the region.

Yes, that’s correct. Your tax dollars pay for scientists to study EVIDENCE, to use the best available techniques and analyses to study issues such as this.  In this case, government biologists found no connection between the birds and the salmon.  That same government, however, decided to ignore their scientists and STILL start the slaughter of 10,000 birds.  Why?  I’m sure it has EVERYTHING to do with politics and keeping the “sportsman” (HAH!!) lobby happy.  It sure as hell has nothing to do with the science.

If I’m a tax payer, I’m wondering what the hell the government is doing, playing politics instead of paying attention to the science.

As a fellow government scientist, I’m left wondering why the hell any of us are doing our jobs, if our work is going to be ignored.

Great way to spend an afternoon…

Burrowing Owl - Hovering - Athene cunicularia

Hovering Burrowing Owl, checking me out as I visit a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands in South Dakota

I’ve been busy since back from vacation, getting back in the swing of things with work, catching up on yard work, etc.  Yesterday I had a chance to get out and bird however, and decided to spend much of the time on one of my favorite spots in the world…a prairie dog town on the Fort Pierre National Grasslands south of Pierre.  As a birder, I’m always attracted to the birdlife around a prairie dog town, but it’s also the other life, from rattlesnakes, the prairie dogs themselves, even the insect life.  Prairie dog towns always just seem so “alive” compared to the surrounding grasslands and farmland.

The prairie dog town I like to visit is near Richland Wildlife Area.  There’s a rather non-descript entrance, a cattle guard and and opening in the barbed wire fence that allows you to drive the mile or so back to the prairie dog town itself.  It really doesn’t matter what time of year I visit, the area always seems full of life.  In winter, it’s nice seeing the activity of the prairie dogs themselves, seemingly defying the harsh weather.  Raptors, particularly Ferruginous Hawks, are also a great draw for me in the winter.  However, in summertime, it’s Burrowing Owls that are my favorite attraction around a prairie dog town.

Burrowing Owls aren’t hard to find in South Dakota.  If you find a decent sized prairie dog town, you will very likely find Burrowing Owls.  The problem is simply vast reduction in the number of prairie dog towns compared to historical times.  Ranchers continue to view prairie dogs as pests…despite studies that show grazing is MORE nutritious around prairie dog towns (a reason Bison used to often frequent prairie dog towns).  Because of that, there’s few creatures more persecuted in South Dakota than the prairie dog.  It’s a FAR too common event for me to visit a long-time prairie dog town, only to find degrading burrows and no prairie dog towns, as the land owner, or even more often, the state itself, has poisoned the animals to “protect” rancher interests.

Burrowing Owl - Athene cuniculari

One of the most common ways to see a Burrowing Owl in South Dakota…one sitting on a fence post near a prairie dog town.

When I do find an active prairie dog town however, I can spend hours watching the wildlife.  At this time of year, Burrowing Owls have young to feed, and that was certainly the case yesterday.  In the area of the prairie dog town I was at, I saw two different families, each with 2 adults and 3 fledglings.  The adults are understandably protective at this time of year, scolding visitors (be they a stray coyote, another bird, or a curious photographer like myself).  It’s quite cool to watch a little family of Burrowing Owls at a burrow entrance, and how they react when danger is afoot. The adults take immediate action to scold the intruder, while the fluffy fledglings quickly waddle down into the burrow.  I don’t get so close as to greatly disturb the Burrowing Owl families, but even at some distance, the adults will often fly over and scold me, sometimes even hovering right by me and glaring a glare meant to intimidate!!

A great day on the grasslands.  Vacations are nice, but I do so love getting back home to South Dakota…

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