This post was written and illustrated by Chelsea Forehead, one of our Hubbard Fellows. Chelsea and Mary will be completing their Fellowship later this month and our new Fellows start on February 3. Chelsea is the midst of job searching, so if you are looking for a bright, analytical, creative, bilingual conservation scientist, I know of a good option for you…
One of the more somber symbols of winter on the preserve has been the absence of cows in the parcels around our house. Despite the ghost-town vibes of prairies sans cattle, I was reminded of the ever-present life among the golden dried grass one day last month. Snow was coming and I headed out to the stock tanks to make sure that the wells were turned off and the floats removed. Floats, I learned, are mechanisms that ensure that the water shuts off once the tank is filled to a certain height. With the cows gone, there was no longer a need for the water to be on, nor for the floats to regulate tanks that wouldn’t be refilling.
While I had noted the amount of biomass in the little prairie oases before, seeing castles of bright green algae in the context of cold winter wind was especially striking. The rowing water bugs seemed unbothered by the frigidness of their steel-walled world. Frequent cow traffic around the tank had left the ground around it bare. In the mud I saw what appeared to be fresh tracks of larger fauna. A raccoon and a coyote, it seemed, had passed through the muddy perimeter. Despite there being no certain way to know what had transpired during their respective- or coinciding? -visits, I couldn’t help but wonder what story their prints could be telling. In order to make a more educated guess, or potentially conjure a more exciting narrative, I did a little digging to learn about the native mammals’ biology.
Coyotes, sometimes called prairie wolves, usually search for food alone or in pairs. The auditory clues to their presence on the preserve are a testament to their more social side. The yips and howls that always make me smile mean that a prairie wolf has found itself separated from the group, or that a reunion between friends is taking place. In warmer months coyotes may even partner with badgers in a cooperative hunting effort. What the badger lacks in speed above ground he provides in burrowing power. Even without the help of badgers, though, the coyote has proven itself surprisingly capable of adapting to human-altered environments. Did this particular coyote capitalize on the water available in this man-made pond? Or was she familiar enough with its presence to know that thirsty prey (a raccoon perhaps?) could be found there?
The similar adaptability of the other mammalian passerby is more certain than the story I sought to read in those prints. The word raccoon comes from an Algonquin word that means “one that scratches with his hands.” The handsy creatures have always seemed to me as though they sport oversized sweaters that needed rolling up at the sleeves. It turns out that their rinsing behavior is not for sanitary reasons. The major sensory input for the raccoon is tactile, and their paws have specially adapted pads for literally feeling things out. These pads are softened by water. By rubbing food between wet paws the raccoon can get a better sense of the morsel. Did this particular raccoon climb the spigot of the water tank in order to dunk a bit of food, or perhaps to search for one there?
If the raccoon and coyote had crossed paths at the stock tank, my hunch was that they were at odds with one another. It turns out that raccoons and coyotes have more in common than I had assumed. I’ve always thought of coyotes as predatory and prone to attack. In truth the omnivorous mammals both scavenge for sustenance. While a coyote could kill a raccoon, the masked wash-bears are not usually a part of the prairie wolf’s diet. Both coyotes and raccoons are often cast as tricksters in Native American storytelling. The story of two scavenging mammals at the water tank likely was no more dynamic than it seemed. Knowing that both are out among the senesced flora, however, makes winter on the prairie feel a bit warmer.