Dry? Sere? Desiccated?
These impressions might come to mind when viewing this typical winter landscape along Colorado’s Front Range, especially if you happen to live in lush and verdant surroundings year-round.
But since I’m used to this paucichromatic scenery, I was mostly enjoying the fact that no wind was blowing on this last day of December as I lowered myself to the ground to feel the sun on my back and observe the prairie dog village stretching out in front of me. The “dogs” were talking to one another and had, no doubt, alerted their relatives of my presence, prompting many to withdraw into their burrows. “No worries, I mean no harm,” is my usual response to their predictable behavior, but I can’t blame them, because I know for a fact that some two-legged malefactors mean exactly that.
When I noticed a movement among the straw-colored grasses a few hundred yards away, I picked up my binoculars. Followed, very quickly, by my camera. I didn’t think I was looking at a prairie dog, as the creature I beheld showed neither the correct shape, nor size, nor motion. It was galloping across the prairie and its dense, attractively colored pelt was rippling up and down and swinging from side to side. It suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t the only, or even the main reason the prairie dogs had vanished into their subterranean dens.
I admit to temporary befuddlement as I hadn’t seen this animal more than a handful of times beforehand. And because I still have a tendency to confuse badgers and wolverines. I needed to remind myself that the latter are large brown animals without facial stripes, and fairly rare in the lower 48, whereas the former are smaller in size, rather gray in color, and do sport facial stripes. They are also more common.
Going over this mental checklist confirmed that this wasn’t a wolverine, but a badger. I had been granted glimpses in the past, but never an opportunity to watch one closely for 15-plus minutes. To say I was transfixed is no exaggeration. I’m fairly certain this individual was aware of my presence as our eyes met a few times and it seemed to stop behind shrubs or rocks or amidst the grasses in a possible attempt to conceal itself from my gaze. At other moments, it appeared to be soaking up the warm-for-the-season-sunshine just as I was doing. On a few occasions it sniffed the ground and started to dig, no doubt intending to unearth one of the prairie dogs, but not succeeding.
Back at home, I pulled out my trusted Audubon Field Guide to North American Mammals from the 1990s and learned (or relearned) some facts: Badgers (Taxidea taxus) are members of the Mustelidae family and are related to weasels, wolverines, and skunks. Their range covers approximately the western 2/3 of the U.S. and southern parts of the western Canadian provinces, where they inhabit plains and prairies, farmland, and edges of woods. They are mostly terrestrial, but are nonetheless able to swim and dive. While they don’t hibernate, they might enter a state of torpor during severe winters. This carnivore’s preferred diet is made up of small burrowing mammals, including mice, rats, gophers, ground squirrels—and prairie dogs.
While the badger’s gorgeous coat and handsome, bestriped face evoke visions of cute and cuddly animals, stuffed or otherwise, its aura bespeaks its fierce and predatory lifestyle. I’m always conflicted when witnessing scenarios in which one being is at risk of losing its life so that another might live. But at least I didn’t have to mourn the loss of a prairie dog on this particular occasion.
PS: If your mind works in similarly inscrutable and circuitous ways as my husband’s, you might enjoy following this link to a YouTube scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with which I have been badgered ever since he has known about this encounter.
PPS: Did you know there were (at least) 9 animal names that are also verbs? Read more, courtesy of Merriam Webster (the list is not exhaustive, as fellow blogger Steven Schwartzman pointed out, and maybe you can add your own animal name that functions as a verb).