From the prairies to the mountains to the desert and back to coastal Florida, a thread of rodential threat wove through our big park trip.
Welcome to the Park...be careful of the rodents!
Prairie dogs, which look like a slim, chirpy woodchucks and live in "towns" that stretch for acres, do in fact get the plague.
As in Yersinia pestis, the bacteria that caused the Black Death, which wiped out an estimated 2/3 of the human population of Europe in the first half of the 1300's.
Lucky for us, the disease burns through prairie dog towns very quickly. It's worth noting that the ranger did recommend that campers avoid handling dead prairie dogs, ESPECIALLY not if we happen to come across hundreds of dead ones at a time.
No fear of that.
I was not expecting the range of rodentia on the trip.
The usual suspects –– red and grey squirrels –– showed up, while Uinta chipmunks, cliff chipmunks, red-tailed chipmunks, and grey-collared chipmunks also frisk about gathering nuts and startling hikers.
Oh, the variations on chipmunks and squirrels –– like the Kaibab squirrel, which has enormous tufty ears and a white tail and can only be found on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. A fearful, shy creature (every family has its oddball, I guess), the Kaibab squirrel prefers the seeds of the Ponderosa pine over human leftovers. Bless them.
Marmots are what happens when woodchucks take up mountain climbing. We spotted tons of Yellow-bellied Marmots. There's also a Hoary Marmot, (poor thing! His parents did not spare a thought for how that would sound) but he was even less photogenic.
We spotted super cute kangaroo rats and thirteen-lined ground squirrels (once known as the leopard-spermophile, which just knocks me out).
Out West, speaking of names, the common woodchuck or groundhog is known as a whistle pig. These creatures are universally unappreciated, whistle pigs. "They are good for sighting your rifle," was the comment we heard more than once.
Also antelope ground-squirrels, which skitter away with the same flashing white butt as the prong-horns. Only much smaller, of course.
Somewhere in the middle of the chippy-to-groundhog spectrum perches the ubiquitous rock squirrel. As a group, rock squirrels are fearless. They have the sleek look of the prairie dog, with chipmunk-ish tails, but with the shameless, aggressive begging native to a city grey squirrel.
According to one park ranger, the rock squirrel is one of the more dangerous creatures at Zion National Park. They bite the hand that just won't resist feeding them. And that results maybe in stitches and a course of anti-rabies injections. Talk about unhappy campers.
No fear of that on my part, but still.
I almost wrote "It's hard to predict what they will do." But it isn't hard at all.
They will search for food wherever they have the slightest chance of finding it (In a backpack? Yup! In the fruit orchard? Yup! On the sidewalk under your very feet? Yup!).
And they will persist, twitching and chirping, whistling or holding unnaturally still from their various lairs.
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