Summer on the Prairie

Summer on the prairie brings extreme weather and conditions that greatly affect our wildlife. Temperatures can reach well over 100°F during the day in many areas of the Great Plains and in the heat of the day many wildlife species rest. Prairie dogs tend to be most active in the morning hours and also in the later afternoon but during the middle of the day they will often retreat into their burrows. A prairie dog burrow system maintains a temperature of approximately 55°F throughout the year, meaning it is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Creatures that do not live in burrows, such as pronghorn, endure the extreme temperatures by restricting unnecessary movements and staying near watering holes.

Late afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Great Plains as air masses build and collide throughout the day. These storms typically do not last very long but can be quite violent with high winds, a multitude of lightning strikes and golf-ball sized hail. After a few furious minutes the storm has passed and the prairie is quiet again. The momentary rain provides temporary moisture for the grasses and brings out species like leopard frogs, Great Plains toads and tiger salamanders. If the storm contained a lot of lightning but very little rain then wildfires are common.

Summer nights on the prairie are not very long but they bring out an abundance of wildlife. Black-footed ferrets will awaken near dusk and come above ground to begin their night of hunting prairie dogs. Badgers work their way across the prairie to find a spot to dig for prey and as they dig for prairie dogs a coyote will often sit close by, hoping to nab a meal that the badger scares up. Kangaroo rats, with their long tails, jump and bound looking for seeds and other vegetation while avoiding a predator. Grasshopper mice, nocturnal carnivorous rodents that prey upon insects, let out a long shrill whistle as they begin hunting for grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches.

Most wildlife species give birth to their young in the spring and the summer is time for the next generation to grow and learn. Swift fox pups begin to venture away from the family den in July to explore the area and learn how to hunt. Black-footed ferret kits are born below ground, blind and helpless, in late May and early June. Those kits do not actually emerge above ground until they are mobile in mid-July when their mother brings them to a freshly-killed prairie dog. As black-footed ferret kits grow they become more adventurous by exploring the natal territory yet they still can act like youngsters. Wrestling and playing are an important part of black-footed ferret kit development as they hone skills they will need to kill a prairie dog. By September the kits are almost adult-sized and ready to strike out and find their own territory.

Late summer is actually the breeding season for some species. Pronghorn bucks will gather a harem of does throughout the summer and chase off smaller bucks. For long-tailed weasels in the Great Plains mating will occur in the summer months even though the young will not be born until the spring months because of delayed implantation, a breeding phenomenon that happens in only a few members of the weasel family. A fertilized embryo will float inside of a female and delay the implantation onto the uterine wall until a later time. In the spring, when conditions are more favorable and prey are more abundant for a long-tailed weasel, the embryo will implant and continue to develop and the pregnancy will last about a month.

The summer prairies teem with activity as wildlife grow, develop and even mate. Birds and insects are abundant. Vegetation sprouts, matures and spreads the seeds for another generation. Mammals raise their young and teach them survival skills. All of this activity sets the stage for the changing conditions of the fall season.