Prairie Dogs, Ferrets, Drones and... M&Ms?

For an illustrated version, see pages 14-15 in The Environmentor, vol. 5, no. 3.

Folktale: The Repentant Ferret

There was once a blackfooted ferret who had lived for years near a prairie dog town, feasting on the little rodents with ease. But as she got older and less nimble, it became harder for her to slip into their burrows at night, to catch them as they slept. "I need a new way of hunting," she thought. "I must use my wits!"

So one day she crept close to the prairie dog town and began to act as if she was praying and reciting verses. Eventually a brave prairie dog came close enough to ask timidly, "Missus Ferret, what are you doing?"

She replied, "I am praying for forgiveness for my many years of attacking your town. I was a wicked ferret! But I have seen the light. I no longer eat furry beasts -- just birds and crickets. I hope your town will forgive me, and accept me as your friend."

This would be very good news for the prairie dogs. "That's great!" he said, and hurried underground to tell everyone. They spilled out onto the open prairie to stare in wonder at the ferret, who continued her phony praying and reciting. Could it really be true that she would no longer hunt them?

"My friends," she assured them, "I'm as harmless to you now as a rabbit or a burrowing owl! All I ask is that you will parade past me every evening, so that I can greet each of you one at a time, and we can bow to each other in humble friendship."

A parade! That sounded like fun. It would be simple enough to do, and would celebrate their freedom from ferret attacks. So that very evening they lined up in single file. As they marched past Miz Ferret, they bowed deeply to her and she bowed deeply to them. "Forgive me," she murmured, and they responded, "Thank you, you're welcome."

When only one prairie dog was left to file past Miz Ferret, and all the others were heading into their burrows, she pounced-- and had a tasty supper. She left not a bone nor a scrap of fur to show what had happened to the last prairie dog in line.

The next evening, and several more, the prairie dogs again paraded past Miz Ferret. I guess prairie dogs can't count! But two young prairie dogs noticed that some of their friends were missing, and devised a plan. Cyndy said, "Ludy, I'll march near the head of the line if you'll march at the very end. Whenever I call your name, be sure to answer 'Here I am!' That way, I'll know you're still safe."

Indeed as soon as Cyndy had bowed to Miz Ferret, she called, "Ludy, where are you?" and Ludy answered, "Here I am!" from the end of the line. They continued calling back and forth until Ludy had safely bowed. Miz Ferret didn't dare to snatch a prairie dog whose friend was keeping track of her.

Miz Ferret went to bed annoyed and hungry that night, but looked forward to a tasty prairie dog the next day. However, Ludy and Cyndy played their calling trick again!

By the third evening, Miz Ferret was so hungry that when she heard Cyndy call, "Ludy, where are you?" again, she lost her temper and pounced on the nearest prairie dog. They yipped in alarm and raced for their burrows! She was too weak with hunger to catch any of them, and had to settle for a mouse and three crickets. Yech.

As for the prairie dogs, they learned never to trust a ferret again.


Facts: Prairie Dogs, Ferrets, and... M&Ms?

Black footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) do indeed prey upon sleeping black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus), but Oklahoma prairie dogs needn't fear them: ferrets have been extinct in our state for many years. However, the rare ferret populations in Montana and other states are threatened by something that also threatens prairie dogs: sylvatic plague.

This serious disease, a variety of the Bubonic ("Black") Plague Yersinia pestis that hit Europe's human population centuries ago, is spread by fleas on the rats that can infest prairie dog burrows. Insecticide doesn't help much because it's expensive, hard to spread into the burrows, and the fleas were becoming resistant. Fortunately there's a vaccine against sylvatic plague. If all the prairie dogs in an area are immunized against the disease, the rare ferrets will be safe too! Unfortunately, it's even more difficult and expensive to catch all the prairie dogs and give them their shots.

Fortunately there's an oral version of the vaccine. But how can you entice prairie dogs to come swallow a dose? Wildlife biologists at UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in north- eastern Montana have found that prairie dogs like candy. "A modified fish bait machine has helped create the vaccine, which will consist of M&Ms smeared in vaccine-laden peanut butter.... lab tests show that prairie dogs find the bait 'delicious', with a dye added to the mix reliably showing up on the animals’ whiskers." Tests in seven states, on four species of prairie dogs, demonstrated that this method worked to immunize prairie dogs.

But it can't be very effective unless the dosed M&Ms can be spread cheaply and efficiently throughout large areas of prairie dog habitat. Rangers on foot could cover just 3-6 acres per hour. Rangers in ATVs could cover more territory, maybe 60 acres/hr, but risk destroying the burrows and disrupting the habitat. So the wildlife biologists are testing Unmanned Aerial Systems: drones! A single drone operator could cover up to 200 acres/hr, delivering M&Ms smeared with yummy [vaccine] peanut butter to prairie dog towns.

So when people on holiday parade floats throw candy at you, think of the prairie dogs getting their vaccinations that way -- from drones. Healthy prairie dog towns may bring ferrets back from the brink of extinction, and eventually return to Oklahoma.



Freely adapted from "The Cat and the Mice" in W. F. O'Connor, Folk Tales from Tibet (London: Hurst and Blackett, Ltd., 1906), no. 5, pp. 26-29. Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 113B.


"Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems to Deliver Prairie Dog Sylvatic Plague Vaccination" ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT March 31, 2016