Saturday, October 24, 2015

365 True Things: 209/Gophers

At dinner this evening, four of us were talking about Terry Tempest Williams. I've only read one book of hers, Refuge, which I loved—despite its earnestness, but then, I can be pretty earnest myself. Today in workshop we read the first two chapters of her book When Women Were Birds, and I'm intrigued to buy it and read the whole of it. I quite liked the bit we read. The writing is incantatory—oratorical, sermonlike, exhorting you to heed something higher, airy, spiritual perhaps.

Opinions about Williams were mixed. Except Eileen did mention one book that we should just stay away from—mainly because of a hundred-page section on gophers.

Gophers? I thought. What an odd thing for Williams to write about.

But yes, Eileen insisted, and Kim threw in that she'd heard from another friend that yeah, the book in question, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, is not one of Williams's best. Precisely because of the gophers.

Somehow as the discussion ensued, it became clear that what Eileen meant was not gophers but prairie dogs.

Apparently when the clarification was made, the expression on my face was . . . well, I'd have to let them describe it. Disbelief mixed with shock mixed with horror mixed with disgust is the impression I get.

Because, hey: gophers are NOT the same as prairie dogs! (I wish I could say they're not anything alike, but I will give you the fact that they are both burrowing rodents. That, however, is where the similarities end. Honestly.)

So here is a brief (not a hundred pages) comparative natural history of these two animals. In defense basically of prairie dogs, who are happy benign little creatures, whereas gophers, evil gophers, eat my vegetables, they killed my fig tree, they pull almost-flowering poppies slowly down into the ground, they make my yard look like a miniature bombing range, and . . . well, let's just say, I am hoping our new cats have serious gopher-hunting superpowers (and leave the birds alone).

(That said, for an excellent literary tale of one ultimately very sad gopher, check out Steinbeck's Cannery Row, chapter 31. It almost makes me feel sorry for the despicable varmints.)

Okay, as I said, the similarities between gophers and prairie dogs are that they are both rodents, and they both burrow. The gopher family, Geomyidae, contains thirty-five species in five genera. The five species of prairie dogs occupy a single genus, Cynomys, within the squirrel family. (See, right there: prairie dogs are squirrels! Gophers are just gophers.)

The main differences:

Size and appearance: Gophers are much smaller than prairie dogs—about 3–5 ounces vs. 32–64 ounces, and 6 inches long vs. 12–15 inches. Unlike prairie dogs, gophers have no distinct neck and have pouches in their cheeks used to store and transport food. A gopher’s tail is hairless, while a prairie dog's is bushy.

This animator did not know
from a gopher, clearly.
Range and habitat: Gophers live pretty much wherever there’s enough vegetation to feed them and they’re able to dig in the soil. Prairie dogs are more specialized, living in prairie and open grasslands in North America. Gophers carefully plug the entrances to their burrows to control the temperature and moisture level inside and to keep out light and other animals. Prairie dogs leave the entrances to their burrows open so they can come and go.

Diet and feeding habits: Gophers eat mostly tubers and the roots of other plants [and they especially love vegetable and flower gardens! —ed.]. Prairie dogs eat these as well, but they also feed on grasses, weeds, blossoms, and seeds above ground. Gophers eat from inside their burrows, pulling their food down from below. In contrast, prairie dogs emerge from their burrows each morning and spend most of their day foraging for food on the surface.

Behavior: The social prairie dog lives in family groups that cooperate: they share food, and groom and protect each other from predators. The black-tailed prairie dog, for example, lives in large networks of burrows called “towns” that can cover hundreds of square miles. Gophers, in contrast, are solitary creatures and come together only to mate. They reproduce year-round, unlike prairie dogs, which have a single annual mating season each spring. Gophers spend nearly their entire lives below ground, coming to the surface only rarely [oh, they definitely come out to survey the pickings in my garden, considering there's serious gopher wire underneath my raised beds, yet somehow my vegetables get spirited away —ed.], whereas prairie dogs spend most of their waking hours outside their burrows, retreating to their dens only to rest or when threatened by a predator.

Finally, gophers are FAR from endangered. Prairie dogs, however, are under some threat of extinction. The main culprits include plague and poisoning—since prairie dogs compete with cows for that succulent prairie grass. (And who got there first? It's really the cows that are doing the competing.) Currently, two of the five species are listed as either threatened (the Utah, Cynomys parvidens) or endangered (the Mexican, C. mexicanus). Thanks to activists (like Terry Tempest Williams) and environmental groups, programs to save the various species of prairie dog are having some success. One example is in Thunder Basin National Grassland.

This was hastily put together because I'm tired (and because I'm tired I stole liberally from a website titled, yes, "What's the Difference between Gophers & Prairie Dogs"). It's been a long day. And I certainly didn't mean to go on nearly this long. But for now, here's way more about gophers and prairie dogs than even I wanted to know . . .

What was I saying about earnestness?



1 comment:

  1. I will never again think of gophers or prairie dogs in the same way. Or without a smile on my face;-)

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