Burrowing Owls live in the ground. Sometimes they dig their own hole. Other times they take over an abandoned hole. One of their favorite types of animal holes is that of the Prairie Dog. Prairie Dogs live in big groups. Usually such a place is called a Prairie Dog Town, but other times there are so many prairie dogs you would have to call such settlements Prairie Dog Cities. Over a hundred years ago, one Prairie Dog City stretched fifty miles long and was home to over 100 million Prairie Dogs.
Prairie Dogs die because a Golden Eagle or a smart Rattlesnake that comes into their hole eats them. When their hole is vacated in this way, a Burrowing Owl moves in and takes it over. In every Prairie Dog Town, there are always Burrowing Owls living there, too.
According to the Indeh and Kwerkenuh, animals used to talk. (Indeh are Apache people, and Kwerkenuh is an old name the Comanches used to describe themselves. “Apache” and “Comanche” are impolite names that were given to the two tribes by other people.) A long time ago, according to the Kwerkenuh, Burrowing Owls did not live with Prairie Dogs.
Once there was a long rainy spell. It rained all day, then all night, then all day, then all night, and kept drizzling for days after that. Since this country is almost flat, the playa lakes first filled up and then kept getting larger and larger. The water got closer and closer to the prairie dog holes. They built their homes higher, mounding up the mud until their mounds looked like volcanic cones. Finally they could not keep up with the rising water, and the mud began dissolving. Water rushed into their holes.
“We have lost our homes!” The prairie dogs rushed out of their holes and gathered in a great crowd and cried and cried and cried. “We have lost our homes! What are we going to do? Oh what are we gonna do?”
The oldest prairie dog started walking. When asked where she was going, she said, “I am finding some dry ground- why waste time crying?” Others began to follow her, and then more, and soon all were sloshing through the mud. They sloshed and sloshed and slithered and skittered and slipped. Mud covered their backs, and their legs and tails looked skinny from being so water soaked. Such sad looking animals!
After walking for hours, the prairie dogs met a buffalo. The grandmother prairie dog was not scared of the huge beast. “Have you seen a dry spot of land?” The buffalo turned his sad eyes to her, and shook his great head. “No”, he snorted. “None of my people have found a dry place.”
The prairie dogs grew sadder. “We are going to die!” The sound of their crying shook the air. The hair on the buffalo’s back stood up from the eeriness of the sound, and he stampeded off through the water.
The grandmother prairie dog shook her head, and kept on marching. “ I am not going to lay down and die,” she muttered. Sure enough, the other prairie dogs followed. After another hour, they met a pronghorn. Again the grandmother walked right up to the bigger animal and asked her question. And again the answer, “No, I have run 45 miles an hour for two hours, and water is over all of this land.”
Again the prairie dogs cried and cried, and again the grandmother kept going on. In another two hours they met a small Swift Fox. Swift Foxes eat prairie dogs, but the grandmother walked right up to him. Before she could say a word, the fox asked, “Have you heard the story? Somebody here can make the rain stop! My grandmother told me the story, but she could not remember who it was. Do you know who it is? Isn’t this rain terrible?” The fox was shivering and kept talking non-stop. Animals and people often do that when they are scared.
Swift foxes capture prairie dogs that get too far from their homes, by leaping out of a hiding place. The grandmother prairie dog realized the fox was scared because thousands of prairie dogs were visible. “Do you want to go with us? Now that you have told us someone can make it stop raining, we will keep walking and sloshing and slipping until we find that person.”
The fox was amazed at her forgiveness. “Why” - but the grandmother cut his words short. “Because you are part of our world. By eating those of us who are foolish, you keep us strong. So come along.” And along they went. Slosh. Slosh. Slosh. Slosh.
On a yucca stalk sticking out of the water sat a small owl. “Who are you?” the grandmother asked. “I am an owl,” he replied. “My people used to live in the mountains far to the west, but bigger owls invaded our home, and chased us away. We have been living in the tall grass along the draws, eating grasshoppers and beetles.”
“We have heard a story that someone can make it stop raining. Have you heard the story?”
“We have been given that power. But like all power, we cannot use it unless asked, and only if it is truly needed. Bugs are easy to catch now since they are cold and wet, and they are crawling up on yucca stalks. We are stuffing ourselves. It is uncomfortable, that is true, but there always must be times when everything isn’t perfect.”
“Well, Mr. Owl, we formally request that you use your power to stop the rain. All the animals we have met are miserable.”
“If we stop it who knows when it will come again? We can not make it rain.” The owl shook his head.
“We will give you a great gift if you make it stop raining.” The grandmother prairie dog was not going to give up. “Go get the oldest owl and let me talk to him.”
The owl flew away, and came back with another owl. “Grandfather Owl, we are requesting that you use your power to make it stop raining. We will give you anything you ask for in exchange.”
“Yes, truly, anything at all. We want the world to return to normal, to live in our holes again, to eat the grass and weeds and watch out for foxes and eagles and rattlesnakes. We want to raise our young, and visit with the buffalo and pronghorn when they feed near our holes in the winter as they eat the rosettes of wildflowers.”
“Go get the other owls,” the grandfather owl instructed the other. All of the animals waited as the mist swirled and the drizzle dribbled. Some of the prairie dogs began to whimper. “Why are we waiting? At least we were warm when we were walking.” Thunder began to rumble in the distance. “Listen ! Here comes another big rain - we will be killed by lightning!”
Out of the foggy skies came a thousand owls. All landed in the water, holding their wings high over the surface. “Normally our long legs help us step over grass,” the grandfather owl commented to the grandmother prairie dog. “ I think this will work.”
“Alright, gentleman. Present arms!” Each owl reached under its wing and pulled out a darkling beetle. “Alright gentleman, began to shake!” The owls shook the beetles they held in their talons.
Nothing happened. “This is crazy!” many of the prairie dogs cried. “This is stupid!”
“SHUT UP!” yelled Grandfather Owl. The owls kept shaking the beetles. Soon the beetles began to stink. If you bother a darkling beetle, it stands on its head and lets out a strong odor.
“YUCK! THIS IS NASTY!” the prairie dogs cried. “STOP IT!”
“SHUT UP- YOU ASKED FOR US TO DO THIS!” The grandfather owl looked at the grandmother prairie dog. “Keep doing it,” she said, “Pay no attention to their crying.”
The stink of the beetles became so horrible that the air filled with a green fog. The air seemed slimy with stink.
“STOP IT – WE ARE DYING!” The other prairie dogs were crying and coughing and gasping for air.
“SHUT UP!” yelled the grandmother prairie dog. When all was quiet, everyone watched. The green fog began to lift, going higher and higher and higher.
“Alright, gentlemen, make the sound.” All the owls clattered their beaks like the sound of a thousand rattlesnakes, and the green fog vanished. The sky was blue and it was no longer raining.
“YEAH- YIPPEEE- YAHOO!” The prairie dogs danced and sang! “It has stopped raining, it has stopped raining, it has stopped raining- yippeeeee!"
And what do you think the prairie dogs gave to the owls for making the rain stop?