The shortgrass prairie and warm reservoir waters of North Sterling State Park provide habitat for a large variety of creatures, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and other members of the animal kingdom. However, many park visitors never see or notice the majority of the animals in the park. Why? There are many reasons. First, traditional recreational activities at North Sterling – camping and boating – are noisy and busy, and few people take the time to stop and really look around for what might be out there. Second, wild animals on the prairie are well-adapted to hide in plain sight to protect themselves from predators, or to hunt carefully and quietly to catch that elusive prey. Third, many species are more active at night, or during dawn and dusk, to avoid the baking mid-day heat. Below, you’ll find descriptions of the wildlife at North Sterling, and a few ideas of how you might be able to get that special glimpse during your visit.
What is Habitat?
Habitat describes the four things that all creatures need in order to survive: food, water, shelter, and space. If an animal can find all of these things in an area, then it is probably a suitable habitat for the animal to call home. Each species has unique needs, which is why many different species can live in the same area at the same time.
Food and water are easy enough to explain – every animal needs to eat to gain energy to live, and water is an important nutrient for our bodies. Shelter is just as important – a safe home where the adults can raise young ones, hide from predators, and escape bad weather. Many prairie animals like badgers, prairie dogs, foxes, and coyotes dig holes or burrows in the ground – or steal burrows from other animals and make them bigger! The shape, size, number, and location of a hole in the ground can often tell you whether it belongs to a snake, rabbit, rodent, or other animal, and sometimes you’ll find tracks, scat, or dinner leftovers that give you an even bigger clue. Not all prairie animals burrow, though – deer and antelope look for sheltered stands of trees that hide them from view, while different birds use cliff ledges, holes in trees or rock walls, building structures, or thick brush and tree branches for shelter. Cover is just as important as burrows or dens for prey animals – critters need tall grass, bushes, brush, and cacti for a quick place to hide from predators when they’re searching for their own food.
What kind of space do animals need?
They need room to move around comfortably, to find food from many different sources, to play and learn to hunt, to hide from predators, and to take shelter. Coyotes, deer, and antelope need many miles of space, while a prairie dog needs less than a mile in the vicinity of its colony, and a mouse might only need a few hundred feet. Hawks, eagles, and other birds have plenty of room in the air, but they need hunting sites, nesting sites, and roosting sites all within a comfortable flying distance. An eagle might fly from North Sterling Reservoir to the South Platte River and back in a single day to go hunting, but a smaller bird like a meadowlark might fly from one end of the reservoir to the other and consider that a day’s hard work.