Role Reversal For A Black-Footed Ferret

June 18, 2009
11:21 p.m., Thursday
Tonight I’m accompanied by a film crew for Patrick McMillan’s Expeditions, a naturalist-conservation show that runs on PBS stations across the country. They are on a cross-country journey, exploring and documenting some of the wonderful plants, animals, people and ecosystems of our Great Plains. Patrick, the host, has become rather enamored with prairies, and his crew is just as excited and hard-working.

Tonight they are hoping to get some footage of my work, locating and capturing black-footed ferrets for vaccination. Spotlighting on an adjacent colony is graduate student and colleague Dave Eads, a collaborator on several current and upcoming black-footed ferret research projects.

June 19, 2009
2:47 a.m., Friday
It’s been a slow night for ferrets thus far, but we have recorded some excellent footage of swift fox, burrowing owls, badgers and a white-tailed jackrabbit. Patrick and crew are pleased but we still have our eye on the prize, and the prize is not being very cooperative.

3:32 a.m.
Dave Eads has caught a ferret, and we work our way over to vaccinate it and film the process.

4:02 a.m.
I finish vaccinating the ferret Dave caught and release it. Patrick and his crew are thrilled. I suggest we get moving, as the sun will rise soon and I know of a swift fox litter near the road on the way back to their hotel.

6:15 a.m.
Patrick and his crew record some phenomenal footage of a swift fox litter running, wrestling and playing. Next he would like to get some film of the federal crews dusting prairie dog burrows. I agree to take them to the dusting crew and introduce them.

6:45 a.m.
The dusting crew arrived on-site earlier and the members are getting their vehicles and gear prepared for a long day of hard work. As we chat with the dusting crew, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a tan streak bounding across the prairie dog colony. It’s a black-footed ferret. I quickly beckon Patrick and the film crew to get the cameras and follow me.

6:52 a.m.
For several minutes, the ferret bounces around among a group of prairie dog burrows and puts on quite a show for the film crew. I can tell by the size of the body that it is an adult male, and he looks to be in excellent health. The ferret has been sitting in one burrow now for almost five minutes with his head above-ground, “periscoping” and watching.

6:59 a.m.
The ferret submerged and I thought for sure was down for the day, but to my surprise he re-emerges. I suggest to the film crew that they keep rolling and enjoy the show. The ferret, after a few false starts, scurries to another burrow and dives in. He pokes his head up and scans for signs of danger before making a run to another burrow to the south.

And then it happened.

Do you know that feeling you get when you realize that something special is happening right before your eyes? Something that may not be entirely uncommon but is rarely witnessed by humans? One of those moments when you really wish you had a camera? In silence, Patrick and I looked at each other and smiled, knowing that something special was happening, rarely witnessed by humans, and we had multiple cameras rolling.

As the ferret ran south to another burrow he stopped dead in his tracks and began to backpedal in retreat as a large, male prairie dog charged in. The prairie dog and ferret made several bluff charges at each other as the ferret was determined to move to another burrow.

The prairie dog dodged, parried and leaped in an attempt to ward off the ferret, but the ferret was faster. The ferret made a dash south for another burrow, and the slower prairie dog threw his body into the ferret like a hockey player throwing a body check. The ferret snapped at the prairie dog but kept running to the cover of the distant burrow.

The prairie dog followed, lumbering across the prairie as fast as it could go. The ferret “periscoped” and the prairie dog rushed in, stamping his feet on the burrow mound and clicking his front teeth together, mimicking the rattle of a rattlesnake. The ferret made another dash and the prairie dog followed.

This continued for almost five minutes as the prairie dog harassed and hazed the ferret until finally the ferret, unharmed, submerged for the day. The prairie dog waited at the burrow entrance for a few more minutes, posturing and visibly agitated, before finally sauntering off, satisfied that he did all he could to protect himself and his family coterie.

7:22 a.m.
It took me at least 10 minutes before I could coherently speak, as I was still amazed at what we just witnessed. Patrick was as equally speechless but we pulled ourselves together enough to record a few words about this ferret being hazed by a prairie dog. It’s an incredible sequence and you’ll get to see it on Patrick McMillan’s Expeditions on PBS in 2010.

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