Sunday, October 27, 2013

Can Prairie Dogs Speak?

Photo by David Hardy on Flickr
Well, not exactly. But they do communicate.

According to Dr. Constantine Slobodchikoff, professor at Northern Arizona University and well-known animal behaviorist and conservation biologist, prairie dogs have a large vocabulary of yips and barks. Some are greetings, and others, like their yip-jumps, appear to be play. 

Much of their vocabulary consists of warnings, and their barks differ depending on the type and location of a threat. A warning about an approaching coyote differs from the warning about a rattlesnake. These Animal Planet Videos demonstrate the various calls.  (Sorry about the commercials.)  

1844 sketch of a prairie dog town from Wikipedia
Prairie dogs live in large communities, called towns, and have a sophisticated social structure, which involves a lot of kissing as well as territorial fighting. Hundreds of years ago, tens of millions of prairie dogs covered the Great Plains, but today, most of their natural habitat is gone and their numbers are greatly diminished. Their loss is widely felt, since prairie dogs are considered a keystone species.  

A keystone species plays a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community because of its effect on other organisms. While the keystone is under the least pressure of any of the stones in an arch, the arch still collapses without it. Similarly, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift if a keystone species is removed.

Photo by US Fish & Wildlife on Flickr
Feeding on grasses, sedges, forbs (broad-leafed vegetation), roots, and seeds, prairie dogs keep vegetation short, fast-growing, and full of nutrition. Their digging action churns up soil like a plow, allowing for more fertile plant life. This in turn draws other wildlife like pronghorns, bison, and rabbits to the area to graze, which in turn leads to a healthier population of predators.

Their burrows help to channel rain underground, reducing surface erosion and increasing the amount of water reaching the water table.

Prairie dog tunnels also make suitable habitats for other animals. Rabbits, salamanders, snakes, and burrowing owls live in abandoned burrows, and badgers and coyotes have been known to enlarge prairie dog burrows to form their own dens.
Photo by Kevin Cole on Flickr

Finally, prairie dogs provide an ample food source for other animals in the food chain such as eagles, hawks, foxes, coyotes, badgers, and the endangered black-footed ferrets.

Unfortunately, many farmers consider the prairie dog to be destructive pests which eat crops, compete with cattle, and carry diseases. They shoot, poison, and even dynamite entire prairie dog towns.  Environmentalists have attempted to have black-tailed prairie dogs listed as endangered.

Here is an informative passage from Wikipedia. Prairie Dogs

"In 2000, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared the black-tailed prairie dog “warranted” for listing as a threatened species, however the secretary was "precluded from actually listing the species by more urgent concerns". In 2004, the department declared that protection was “not warranted.” The day after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the species from the candidate list, South Dakota announced its mass extermination campaign in the Conata Basin, home to one of the two viable black-footed ferret populations remaining in the wild. Tens of thousands of acres of prairie dogs were poisoned until 2006. In 2007, conservation groups filed suit in U.S. District Court in Denver challenging the secretary of the interior’s decision not to list the black-tailed prairie dog as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Forest Guardians, Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and the Center for Native Ecosystems contended that the livestock industry and land developers pressured the federal government not to list the prairie dog."

How you can help

I want to thank Abi Cushman for collecting this information on her site, Animal Facts.

If you would like to help the black-tailed prairie dog, there are several things you can do. You can contact government officials at the local, state, and federal levels advocating further protection for black-tailed prairie dogs. You can also make donations to charities trying to save the Great Plains and its wildlife like Wildlife Defenders or the American Prairie Foundation.

More Prairie Dog Resources

Photo credits:
Prairie dog in flowers David Hardy on Flickr
Kissing Prairie Dogs US Fish & Wildlife on Flickr
Burrowing Owl Protecting its Den Kevin Cole on Flickr 

All photos used under Creative Commons Attribution License

Friday, October 4, 2013

Lesson Plan: The American Dream in COYOTE WINDS

My Grandparents
I want to thank Jessica Brown for writing a wonderful lesson plan on how the American Dream is explored in COYOTE WINDS.  Below is the beginning of the plan.  If you would like to see more, please email me at

Coyote Winds Lesson Plan: American Dreams
Subject: Literature/American Studies; Grade Level: 6-9
Duration: Three to four class periods

Writing in 1931, historian James Truslow Adams described the American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” He identified the American West, a place where “the frontiersman had developed the right combination of qualities to conquer the wilderness,” as the birthplace of this distinctly American can-do spirit. The American West, with its seemingly limitless land and boundless opportunities to start anew, seemed the perfect place for men and women to prove themselves, build their fortunes and live their dreams.

In this lesson, students will explore the theme of the American Dream and how it relates to the American West in Coyote Winds. After discussing their own interpretations of the American Dream and watching a brief video that defines the concept, students will break into groups and discuss how various characters’ dreams reflect, or fail to reflect, the American Dream.

Guiding Questions: 
  •  What is the American Dream? Is it different now than it was in the 1930’s? Is Coyote Winds critical of the American Dream or does it celebrate it? Might it do both?
  • In Coyote Winds, how is the American Dream connected to the American West? Why do some characters see the prairie as a land of possibilities while others feel trapped in it?  
In this lesson students will learn to:
·         Examine critically the concept of the American Dream.
·         Analyze a recurring theme in a literary text.
·         Conduct in-depth character analyses.
·         Use and summarize evidence from a literary text to support an argument. 

Procedure: Class 1: Introduction to the American Dream 
1.      Begin by asking the class to spend 10-15 minutes writing about what they think of when they hear the term “American Dream.” How would they define it? Do they know, or have they heard of people, who are living the American Dream? Is the American Dream distinctly American? Why or why not? After 10-15 minutes, ask students to discuss what they wrote with the class.

2.      For common ground, have students watch this video on the American Dream: How does the video define the American Dream? What are some the unique aspects of American history that the speakers in the video relate to the American Dream?

** Throughout this activity, as keywords come up, have one or two students write these words on the board. Keep these words visible throughout the duration of the lesson. 

     Use the rest of the class to discuss how the American Dream is revealed in Coyote Winds, and especially how Lionel’s character embodies it.