North Dakota Wildlife
By Rita Maisel
Those of us born after President Franklin Roosevelt was elected grew up singing what was reported to be his favorite song, “Home on the Range”. Today’s children may never have heard the lyrics, but it begins with “give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play…”. Today those lines appear to be the slogan of North Dakota advertising for hunters and tourists.
Personally, I remember the lyrics and singing the song, but it was years after college before I saw a live buffalo, and if my memory is correct, that was when driving through South Dakota on the way to Denver. A clearer memory of a rare animal sighting is of the phone ringing on my cousin’s farm early one morning. Some of the family were stirring and getting ready to go out and milk the cows. My job was making breakfast to have it ready when the men came in to eat. The ringing appeared to be an urgent phone call as the person calling had used the special ring that would reach everyone on the party line. A moose had been spotted in the trees at Jimmy McGauvran’s. Around the neighborhood people ran to cars and pickups and took off to catch sight of the moose before he moved to another area. That was my first remembered sighting of a moose and am sure a closer look at an antelope came many years later. Picking berries in the summer we saw deer beds in the trees, but the deer who rested there were usually elsewhere while we laughed and picked berries in their private gardens.
The point of this is that unless you are a hunter or farmer who also enjoys animals, you may have missed a lot of the wildlife for which North Dakota claims to be famous. There is a listing of nine animals to watch for when you enter our state with bison at the top (not the football variety). Then come elk, moose, mule deer, bighorn sheep, wild turkey, red foxes and others. Few, if any of them, wander into our backyards these days. An exception to that might be the herds of deer that have ventured into the area near the elevators at the south side of Langdon or who roam at will around the Nekoma area – possibly drawn there by the elevators and the relatively quiet area of the old MSR site.
Yes, we do have squirrels who like to jump from trees to roofs and nibble on the shingles, rabbits who feast on vegetables before the gardener who planted them can get there, and others who tunnel into our yards or gardens and leave tracks behind. There are usually beautiful birds who find feeders and bird baths while migrating through our area but do not spend a lot of time entertaining us.
The reason for this column came when I noticed some unusual tracks beside my car sitting in the parking lot. My guess was two animals had been by, one with big feet and one with smaller footprints. People who saw these animals said there had been two animals in the area but both sizes of prints could have been made by the same animal. This animal has smaller paws in front and large fluffy paws in back. They winter in bushes and in areas where there are evergreens. Brown or gray in summer, their footprints are easier to see in winter than the animal itself which is a fluffy white that becomes almost invisible against a snow bank. Most will call it a snowshoe rabbit although it is larger than a rabbit and a different species called the snowshoe hare.
Wondering if I could find more information on internet, I did a search and found various references to this animal in Canada where it is listed in every province and as far north as the Arctic. They can be found in northern states of the US and in mountainous areas. This is the first winter people have mentioned seeing their tracks in Langdon. They eat almost any type of plant and in winter are reduced to twigs, branches, bark and pine needles. As it happened, my car was parked near a sturdy pine tree which may have lost some bark and needles by the hare’s visit. Hares are reportedly not only larger than rabbits but also faster and have been clocked at 45 kilometers. I am certain that clocking was done with instruments and not passed down with the well-known story of the Tortoise and the Hare. Over Christmas these snowshoe hares found patio areas in our neighborhood – possibly for warmth but maybe in search of perennial plantings. Watch for the mis-matched prints on new snow in your own yard. The visitors seem to travel from place to place.
Along with interesting trivia, looking up North Dakota animals will give you other food for thought. Whether animals or birds, their survival is not so much a matter of climate or food as it is coping with man-made enemies. Hunters do take a toll of the wild life in the area, of course. Snowmobiles disturb their habitat, and riders who chase deer, antelope, coyotes, wolves, foxes and other familiar animals are responsible for more animal deaths than cold or starvation.
Growing up in Langdon without a car in the family, it is possible I paid very little attention to animals that might be spotted along the roadside. We kind of ignored the animal life around us in those days. Then came the days of driving long distances to teach or to participate in craft shows and meeting Bambi face to face on many roads. Only once did a deer charge into the side of the car and cause damage which resulted in an emergency rescue of me – the deer was long gone. It became necessary to watch the sides of the road and the scenery as it changed.
Along the ponds in the area were what we called muskrat houses. We would count them to see how many were in each little frozen pond and later discuss the number. Few meant a mild winter, and lots meant the opposite. In recent years there have been almost no visible winter homes for pond animals. Have they all been trapped or died off for lack of habitat?
Another sign of changing times was an announcement that pheasant counts are down by 40%. How long has it been since you last saw or heard the song of a meadowlark – North Dakota’s state bird which used to sit on fenceposts and serenade us? Yes, there are fewer fence posts, but song birds, in general, are around us in smaller numbers. Some birds and animal populations can be renewed by feeding programs or protection of their habitat. Others tend to become dependent on the programs and lose their sense of foraging for themselves. Even good intentions can go wrong.
While we still have wildlife visiting us, enjoy them and learn about them. They may not be here forever, but then again they may outlive you and me.