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Ohio Road Trip – Finding ‘Ohio’s Prairie Dogs’.

August 3, 2013

Pleasant Cemetery

Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel

I’ve discussed Ohio’s prairies before- as a quick reminder, Ohio is about as far east as prairies have spread from the western part of North America.  Most of the prairies have been plowed up to be used as farmland, though there have been efforts in the past 30 years to reintroduce prairie grasses and wildflowers back to parkland that once had them in abundance.

Plants weren’t the only inhabitants of the prairie ecosystem.  There is a certain small mammal that still lives in Ohio in reduced numbers that used to call the many miles of prairie home.  It has been called ‘Ohio’s prairie dog’.  I recently heard that this mammal could be seen at a rural cemetery in central Ohio; I simply had to find it.

Near the small town of Mount Sterling is Pleasant Cemetery, established in 1863.  This is a well-kept rural cemetery with a mixture of old and new graves (and interestingly enough, though it’s fairly large, only 1 tree).  This is the place where I heard that there was an active colony of a prairie mammal that is much more common in the western US.  They are still holding out here in the old former prairie areas of Ohio, but unless you live near them, you don’t run across them.  Time for a road trip!

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I left early, driving country backroads- something I enjoy doing to ‘see the sights’.

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I ran across this unique house- I’m sure there’s a story behind it.  I’ll have to do a bit of research on it one day.

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My destination was right on the Madison-Pickaway County line.  There was a house nearby, and a farm down the road, but other than that, it was in a quiet area, a few miles outside of Mount Sterling.

0813-1 (30)There’s something about older cemeteries that interest me.  They have character, contain a good dose of history, and they usually are places where birds can be found.

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On one side, a cornfield grows right up to the cemetery’s edge.

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Robins ran ahead of me on the road as I walked, finally running into the cornfield to escape the guy with the camera.

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Ohio’s having a great corn crop this year, making up for the poor drought-ridden crop of 2012.  This summer has been wetter than normal.

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Morning Glories grew, twining around the corn.  A beautiful flower.

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On the opposite side of the cemetery, an unused field showed some hints of prairie plants, a reminder of what had grown here for thousands of years.

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Bluestem Grass used to cover this area for miles around, before there were farms; it was a common tallgrass prairie plant.

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There were a good amount of birds here.  This Killdeer was one of several.

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The Robins were back from running around in the corn.

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A young Chipping Sparrow followed a parent around.

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A House Sparrow father kept a protective presence next to one of his young.

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This Starling was probably a few months old.

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Up above, a marsh bird flew over- it may have been an American Bittern.

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A kettle of Turkey Vultures formed nearby- soaring in a circle together.

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Barn Swallows swooped low over the grass, hunting for insects.

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I walked around the cemetery, enjoying the cool morning air.  I was looking for small furry things, but I couldn’t help looking at gravestones.

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Some of the graves were old.

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There was a memorial for World War I veterans buried nearby.

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This interesting old storage building attracted birds who liked to hang out on its roof.

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There is one mausoleum on the grounds.

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I walked around the plots for a while, not sighting any rodents.  I was beginning to wonder about them…but there were some modern gravestones that caught my eye.

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I stopped and chatted a bit with a gentleman who walked 2 miles a day here every morning.  I asked him about the ‘prairie dogs’, and he said that he had seen them here, though this morning was rather chilly.  He thought they’d be out later, when it warmed up some.  I thanked him for the advice.

I returned to my car and sat in it, watching the clouds roll by.  After an hour or so, I was dozing.  I was the only person in the cemetery.

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Suddenly, through the windshield, I saw a little head poke up from the grass.

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I got out of the car and slowly approached the little creature.

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It looked to be the size of a Chipmunk, but it had a curious pattern of stripes and dots upon its back.

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This is a Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel, who prefer burrowing into short-grass environments such as this location.  Active in late summer and early autumn, they fatten up to prepare for an extended hibernation from October to April.  They are not fans of winter!

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This squirrel was keeping an eye on me.  I kept far enough away not to alarm it, but it knew I was there.  ‘I see you’ it seemed to say.

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These creatures are mostly solitary, but live in loose groups.

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They have a brief but active spring

Soon after hibernation ends in April, these squirrels mate. After a gestation period of 28 days, 7 to 10 young are born. They mature quickly and leave the burrow after about a month. Females usually produce only one litter a year.

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It nosed through the dewy grass.  It needed to put on some weight before this autumn, which meant lots of eating.  It eats a varied diet, from grass seeds to insects and even mice and shrews.

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It is well known for standing upright to survey its domain, diving down into its burrow when it senses danger, then sometimes poking out its nose and giving a bird-like trill. It has a maximum running speed of 8 mph (13 km/h) and reverses direction if chased.

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It found something to eat and munched on that, not taking its eye off of me.  I decided to stop bothering it, but left a peanut where I first saw it appear for its trouble.

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On the way out of the cemetery, I spotted another one dive into this burrow hole along the road.

The burrow may be 15 to 20 feet (4.6 to 6.1 metres) long, with several side passages. Most of the burrow is within one to two feet (about half a meter) of the surface, with only the hibernation nest in a special deeper section. Shorter burrows are dug as hiding places. This ground squirrel’s home range is two to three acres (0.8 to 1.2 ha).

I dropped another peanut there, and then I was off.  I had spent an entertaining morning learning that prairie environments attract more than just colorful flowers.

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2013 1:10 am

    That was a lovely adventure, thanks for posting! I am glad you found your squirrels!

  2. August 4, 2013 6:35 am

    What lovely little creatures! And what beautiful markings – alternating dots and stripes. I like how you left them peanuts as a thank you. There were some pretty impressive birds there too – the kettle of turkey vultures, especially. A lovely post and I’m glad your patience paid off!

    • August 4, 2013 8:57 am

      Thanks Jo! It’s always a good idea to talk to local people, they know tons more about what’s going on 🙂

  3. August 4, 2013 7:49 am

    Beautiful post. So many lovely sights you encountered in your quest for the prairie dweller.

  4. August 4, 2013 8:58 am

    Another entertaining and educational post. I especially liked your photos of the morning glories wrapped around the corn. It’s amazing how you can see so much beauty, interest and life everywhere you go… even in a cemetery. Bet they were happy to see those peanuts!

  5. August 4, 2013 10:46 am

    Great post and pictures as always. What especially caught my eye is how well kept this cemetery is. (Especially with all the birds flying around.) Guess that’s the Southerner in me. We tend to do a lot of cemetery roaming.

    • August 4, 2013 11:03 am

      I thought the same thing, John- here’s this fairly remote cemetery and it’s very well-kept. The caretakers do a great job there.

  6. August 4, 2013 2:23 pm

    What a pretty ground squirrel! I liked that house. That looks like a huge old cemetary. The corn is looking really good, this year.

  7. August 5, 2013 1:15 pm

    My first thought was “chipmunk” when I saw it. It’s an interesting creature. Cemetaries are also good places to go lichen hunting, but you need a good macro lens to get photos of them. I saw if few in your shots.
    The corn growing right alonside the cemetary road like that seems a little odd. The morning glory shot is beautiful.

    • August 5, 2013 5:50 pm

      Yeah, the little guys were sort of a prairie dog / chipmunk combo! There were a couple of headstones covered with some lichen, I had a ton of shots I didn’t use and of course those were in that file! Morning Glories are often seen on the edges of cornfields and I like how they contrast with the cornstalks. When I first saw the cornfield, I thought ‘someone took down a fence!’

  8. August 5, 2013 10:43 pm

    Very interesting photos of the old cemetery. I bet there is a lot of history there.
    The prairie dogs are cute little things and have a very interesting lifestyle. They have their own little niche, don’t they.

    • August 6, 2013 3:09 pm

      It was a perfect place for them out there (though I imagine they had to hide in burrows when the lawnmowers were out). I saw a couple corncobs on the stalk that were half-eaten and wondered if the little things could climb…

  9. August 8, 2013 9:38 am

    Your ground squirrel is very cute. We have them sometimes though many more chipmunks and I have wondered if they compete to some degree…

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