Jul 12, 2011

Eat a Cheeto, Save a Prairie Dog: Day 2, Part 1

Kaylee has written some excellent entries encapsulating the wonderful time we had on our Western Oklahoma road trip. Our hope is that these ideas will encourage you in your summer travel plans to look at what is in your backyard that you haven’t yet discovered.

I have heard about the Wichita Wildlife Refuge or simply “The Wichitas” most of my life However, my family lacks that necessary outdoorsy gene so we never made it down to Southwestern Oklahoma with a tent in tow. I would be lying to you if I claimed to have gained any great outdoor skills in recent years, but I have come to appreciate more of these activities and love the reprise from city living that nature so kindly offers.

View from Mt. Scott at the Wichita Wildlife Refuge.

I was very excited to finally visit the Wichitas and see what all the fuss was about. Kaylee and I had a wonderful guided tour where we were regularly reminded that this is a wildlife refuge not a park meaning the animals take precedence over the humans. There are so few places left where that is the case and it is an ongoing conversation at the refuge as to how best to preserve the land as a sanctuary for the animals. There was a stillness and calmness about the place that was incredible. I loved watching the bison roam and observing the prehistoric looking longhorns.

Wonderful exhibits at the Refuge's Information Center.

But the real pièce de résistance was waiting for me and I didn’t even know it. As my blog post mentions, prairie dogs also live in the refuge. I couldn’t have been more excited. I love prairie dogs. Now before you get all judgmental (“who loves rodents?!”), let me explain. 1. Prairie dogs are adorable. 2. Baby prairie dogs are insanely adorable. 3. They are fascinating to observe. Now given that point 1 and 2 are obvious statements of fact allow me to expand on point 3.

Prairie Dogs! Baby Prairie Dogs!

Prairie dogs live in towns and they communicate with each other with high pitched chirping noises. They live underground in what I like to call prairie dog condos with different rooms for different activities. (See Fantastic Mr. Fox for a cute visual on subterranean living.) They warn each other of predators and they protect their own. They are highly social and have little prairie dog kisses (no lie) for their family members. They are also a keystone species and an important part of the ecosystem balance in the grasslands.

Prairie Dog on alert.

The prairie dogs also chirp to warn each other of predators or impending danger. Unfortunately, they do not have a warning call for their greatest danger. The Cheeto. Well, technically any human snack food but apparently the refuge prairie dogs have a penchant for the cheesy orange treat. We could blame it on the prairie dogs for being so cute that of course we would want to share our snacks. But human food causes them to lose their hair, exposing their darker skin to the other prairie dogs who then assume a predator is in their midst and banish the poor prairie dog from their town.

I learned all of this on our guided tour and I am sure had I shown intense interest in another species I would have returned armed with new knowledge about it. The staff at the refuge is incredibly helpful and knowledgeable and the fact this place even exists and exists in our backyard is wonderful. So do yourself a favor and take some time to chill out among the wildlife, take in the views and meet the prairie dogs, but by all means keep your Cheetos to yourself.

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