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Finding a way back for ferrets.

It's dusk on the North American plains. The small, brown head of a male black-footed ferret pops up from the entrance to a tunnel. He looks around, alert for danger. When he senses that all is well, he bounds into the open.

The ferret leaps and lopes through the short grasses. He pauses now and again, rising up on his hind legs. He sniffs for signs of coyote, badger, eagle, or owl--his worst enemies. Then off he leaps again.

Before you know it, he's dropped into another tunnel. With a flick of his tail, he's gone.

PRAIRIE DOG BUILDERS

To understand black-footed ferrets, first you have to know something about prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are really a kind of ground squirrel. Millions of them once lived in huge colonies, called towns, all across the American prairies. Each town was made up of a maze of tunnels that the prairie dogs had dug underground.

These tunnels were homes for the prairie dogs. But they were also an important part of the prairie. The tunnels helped rainwater flow deep underground. That let deep-rooted grasses get enough water, even during dry weather. And other animals besides prairie clogs lived in the tunnels too--including black-footed ferrets.

The ferrets hunted mostly at night. Each one would pop in and out of hundreds of prairie dog burrows in search of a meal--which was almost always a tasty prairie dog.

The ferret's hot-dog shape was perfect for an underground life. Its long, low body and short legs were great for scurrying through narrow burrows. And what if a hungry coyote poked its nose down a burrow where a ferret was hiding? No problem. The ferret could flip backward in that tiny space--and go in the opposite direction.

Over thousands of years, ferrets and prairie dogs lived together. Then people brought cattle and sheep to the plains, and everything changed.

SETTLERS BRING CHANGES

In the late 1800s, settlers started destroying the huge prairie dog colonies. (The settlers thought that prairie dog towns ruined the land for their cattle and sheep.) The ferrets had barely anywhere left to live and almost nothing to eat. They died off by the thousands. Finally, everyone thought the ferrets were extinct.

But then came a great surprise. In the early 1980s, scientists found some ferrets. The animals were living in a few Wyoming prairie dog towns that hadn't been destroyed.

The scientists captured some ferrets to study, and they watched over the rest in the wild. Everyone was hopeful until more trouble came--the newly discovered ferrets began dying from diseases.

Scientists were alarmed by the deaths. So they rescued 18 ferrets--all the ones they could find in the wild. Luckily, they had enough males and females to breed. Everyone was thrilled when kits were born. Now maybe the ferrets had a chance!

PUT THEM BACK--FOR THE FUTURE

In 1991, some ferrets were returned to the wild in Wyoming. Since then, hundreds have been freed in protected prairie dog towns in South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona.

But the ferrets' problems aren't over. Ferrets raised in captivity aren't good at surviving on their own. So scientists put the ferrets in fake prairie dog towns. There, the ferrets learn to hunt.

Many different groups are helping ferrets, including the National Wildlife Federation (the group that puts out this magazine). They're making sure the ferrets have a chance for a good future!
COPYRIGHT 1998 National Wildlife Federation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 
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Title Annotation:ferret behavior
Author:Schleichert, Elizabeth
Publication:Ranger Rick
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Words:565
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