Getting to know New Mexico wildlife

A melodious voice and a crushing grip

By James Taulman
Moriarty, New Mexico
Posted 8/22/19

We not only enjoy observing wildlife and benefit from those that provide food and other resources, but we depend on a healthy, diverse wildlife community in other ways, as well.

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Getting to know New Mexico wildlife

A melodious voice and a crushing grip

Posted

Editor's note: This week we launch Wildlife Portraits, a look at some of the wonderful species you may encounter out on the trails and waters around the state brought to us by a longtime biologist.

I have always enjoyed observing wildlife behavior and learning about the amazing diversity of their different lifestyles. Each species is uniquely adapted to its particular environment and interacts with other species and habitats in such intricate ways. And each species plays a critical role and makes its own contribution to a balanced and properly functioning ecosystem.

The loss of any one wildlife species has ripple effects across the entire wildlife community and even the wider ecosystem. The elimination of a mammal predator allows rodent populations to grow and that in turn can change the composition of the vegetation community in an area. We not only enjoy observing wildlife and benefit from those that provide food and other resources, but we depend on a healthy, diverse wildlife community in other ways, as well.

Many of our crops and native plants are pollinated by bees, hummingbirds and other species. Birds and bats are constantly at work harvesting insects that could otherwise proliferate to become serious pests. All wildlife species are valuable and deserve our stewardship and appreciation, as we enjoy the benefits of their individual beauty and fascinating behaviors.

All of these species are found in Northern New Mexico:

Western meadowlark

Sturnella neglecta

This medium-sized bird of prairies and meadowlands has a brown mottled back but a bright yellow breast with a striking black V. The flutelike melodious song can be heard from a great distance as the bird sings from a shrub, tree or fence post. Meadowlarks eat insects and seeds and often forage on the ground. The strong bill allows them to probe the ground and open holes from which insects can be more easily taken. The ground nest is sometimes covered over the top.

Males often have two female mates during the breeding season. Populations have been declining since 1966, now about 50 percent of previous levels, probably due to several factors, including their grassland breeding habitat being lost to development and agriculture, pesticides removing insect populations and fire suppression leading to loss of grasslands and intrusion of woody species.

Fun fact: The western meadowlark is so well loved that it is the state bird in Montana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming.

Great horned owl

Bubo virginianus

This large owl inhabits a wide variety of environments across the United States. It preys on small to medium-sized mammals and birds, as well as reptiles and amphibians, and even some invertebrates. The mottled brown and gray coloration provides good camouflage against the backdrop of tree limbs and vegetation. Prey animals are normally killed by crushing and piercing with the talons on the feet. Then the owl consumes the victim by either swallowing it whole or taking it to a perch where it is torn into edible portions. Indigestible bones and other parts are later regurgitated as pellets.

Great horned owls nest early, normally laying eggs in February or March in the south and southwest, and choose a wide variety of nesting sites, such as dead tree dens, small caves, man-made structures or even bare ground. They do not construct their own nests, but may add feathers or other enhancements to nests they discover and occupy.

Fun fact: These owls have no natural predators and if they can survive their first year, they normally have long lives, many surviving into their teens and sometimes reaching into the 20s.

Gunnison's prairie dog

Cynomys gunnisoni

These ground squirrels have a smaller and more western range than the black-tailed prairie dog and occur in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona, south of the range of the white-tailed prairie dog. Interestingly, this species only has 40 chromosomes, whereas the other four prairie dog species all have 50. The dark eyebrows are distinctive and the tail is light gray. The diet consists of grasses, leaves and seeds. They may also take insects. They are very social, with juveniles engaging in frequent greetings with other young and adults.

As with all prairie dogs, Gunnison's are keystone species in the dry grasslands and meadowlands where they occur, digging burrow systems that are utilized by a variety of other vertebrates for shelter, such as burrowing owls, snakes and other rodents. Their burrow systems also allow greater penetration of precipitation into the soil. The prairie dogs also provide an important food resource for many prairie-dwelling predators, including coyotes, foxes, badgers, bobcats, eagles and large hawks. The black-footed ferret depends upon prairie dogs for its primary food source and ferret populations can't survive in areas where prairie dogs have been eradicated.

They can live about five years and construct burrow systems with chambers serving different functions, such as for sleeping, food storage and a latrine. Gunnison's prairie dogs will enter an inactive torpor state lasting from November through February, unlike the black-tailed prairie dog which is active year-round. The population is in a decline due to hunting, intentional poisioning and natural plague, which is transmitted by fleas. The range of the Gunnison's prairie dog has been reduced to less than 90 percent of its original expanse. It is estimated that over 200,000 prairie dogs were shot in Colorado in the year 2002.

Fun fact: The juvenile prairie dogs play-fight with one another.

James Taulman lives in Moriarty, New Mexico, and is a semiretired wildlife biologist, still doing some small research projects and publishing, most recently in the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. He worked with the U.S. Forest Service Research branch in the '90s and then taught at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation and finally at Park University in Kansas City, Missouri, until 2014.

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