Rattlesnake, prairie dog and owl

Prairie dog town, Boundary Commission report

John Cremony's Apache lore, ca. 1864

"Travelers over our plains have frequently observed that the prairie dog, rattlesnake and ground owl live together in one habitation, and being unable to solve the problem myself, I asked several shrewd Apache warriors to do it for me.Prairie dog, Bob Savannah, USFWS

"The rattlesnake, said they, is a very wise reptile. He permits the prairie dog to make a nice, warm nest, and then he quietly takes possession, but does not disturb the safety of the inmates, who retire and fit up another cell, quite ignorant of the snake's intention, who makes it a point never to injure the old pair, unless pressed by dire necessity; but in the most stealthy manner devours one of the young every now and then, leaving no evidence of his carnivorous propensity. The parents never seem to entertain any suspicion of their dangerous guest, who always puts on the best behavior in their presence, although capable of destroying them with ease. On the other hand, the snake never devours a prairie dog when he can seize his more legitimate prey above ground, but keeps them as a sort of reserved fund. The ground owls scarcely ever descend into the depths of the hole, but burrow a separate cell close by its entrance, whither they retire for repose and to deposit and hatch their eggs. In the daytime they sit nodding on top of the hillocks made by the prairie dogs, and at night they hunt their prey, which consists of lizards and all sorts of bugs and beetles, after which they sleep--in the early morning--and re-appear again about eleven o'clock a.m. As I have never examined into this subject, I can only relate the Apache version."

The drawing at the top of this page is from John Russell Bartlett's book, Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents [of the Boundary Commission], 1854. While travelling through Texas, the wagon train of the Boundary Commission passed through many prairie dog towns that continued for miles. Bartlett, like Cremony, remarked that snakes and owls appeared to co-exist peacefully with the prairie dogs. He wrote:"In one instance I saw a rattlesnake enter one of the habitations; but whether he belonged there or was an interloper it was impossible to tell. Small brown owls flitted about, and lit on the little hillocks in the midst of the prairie dogs, with which they seemed to be on good terms. For more than three hours our march continued through the vast domains of this community, or dog-town, as they are usually called, nor did they terminate when we stopped for the night."

Sketch of prairie dog by Bob Savannah, USFWS
Return to rattlesnakes page