I mention birds quite often in this column. Like us, they are mostly creatures of daylight. We can see and hear them, making them easier to identify. Mammals also live all around us, but we seldom see many of them because they are most active at night. Only a few, like members of the squirrel family, are daylight creatures. Some of the mammals that once were common as little as 50 years ago are rare or even completely gone from central Iowa, due for the most part to habitat loss.
I recall going for rides out in the country with my parents when I was a boy. It wasn’t unusual to see several white-tailed jackrabbits running in the headlights in front of the car. Jackrabbits, actually members of the hare family, are native to grassland. Many farms still had pastures and fields of hay and oats that provided good jackrabbit habitat back in the 1950s. Corn and soybeans had replaced most of those fields by the 1970s, and jackrabbit habitat is nearly gone in much of Iowa today. An occasional jack still shows up in our area, but sightings are as rare as the grassland habitat that once supported them.
The Franklin’s ground squirrel also needs grassland to survive. Grayer and larger than the common 13-lined ground squirrel, they might even be mistaken for the gray squirrel common to eastern forests. They prefer taller grass than their short-grass-loving cousins and are harder to see when present. Franklin’s ground squirrels still burrowed in the road ditch banks at McFarland Park in the early 70s, but it’s been many years since the last one was seen there. A few are still around in roadsides and railroad rights-of-way. Some burrows along the Heart of Iowa Nature Trail near Cambridge appear too large for 13-lined ground squirrels and too small for woodchucks. They may be a sign that Franklin’s ground squirrels still exist there. The plains pocket gopher, another once-common grassland native, is seldom seen, even where it’s still present. This powerfully built yellowish ground squirrel spends most of its life underground. The only visible sign of them is mounds of earth they push up from their burrows.
The weasel family was once represented by as many as seven species in central Iowa. Some members of the family that were once common are now rare or completely gone. The longtail weasel, or ermine, is the largest of the true weasels, with a head and body length of around 9 inches. It was once found in nearly all habitats as long as water was nearby. Fierce hunters, they regularly take prey as large as rabbits. They were also known to take chickens that significantly outweighed them. They may still exist in small numbers, but it’s been years since I last saw one. The least weasel, with a head and body length of only around six inches, is our smallest carnivore and feeds almost entirely on mice. Though seldom seen, a few are still present, mostly around grassland and open woods. The spotted skunk, or civet cat, may be extirpated from Iowa since there have been no recent sightings. Smaller than the striped skunk, its larger and more common cousin, the spotted skunk once ranged statewide. The badger is perhaps the state’s most fierce native predator. Badger numbers have declined along with the grassland habitat that once supported their primary prey: ground squirrels. Though the badger may not be spotted, evidence of its digging will sometimes be seen where ground squirrels are present.
The wild dog family once had four members in Iowa. The gray wolf is gone, but the coyote continues to thrive. The red fox is still present in fair numbers, too, but its numbers often decline where coyotes are common. The smallest member of the family, the gray fox, was probably never common in central Iowa since they prefer large woodlands. The gray fox is also the only member of the dog family that regularly climbs trees. A few have been seen in Story County over the years, and though there have been no recent sightings that I’m aware of, some may still exist along our wooded stream valleys.
Some mammals, including most of our native bats, continue to decline across Iowa. Others that were once driven to near extinction are common again and include white-tailed deer, beaver and river otters. Bobcat numbers are increasing and are again being seen in central Iowa, too.
(Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation. He lives in Nevada.)