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Prairie Dogs

prairie dog

Photo by Ethan Miller

Once known as the "barking squirrel of the West," the prairie dog is a remarkable animal in many ways. At one time there were billions of prairie dogs living on the Great Plains and in the Western mountains.

Prairie dogs have inhabited the grasslands for thousands of years. They were in balance with the large grazing animals of the grasslands, such as the buffalo, elk and deer. In addition, they provided a buffer food supply in times of scarcity for predators such as wolves, coyotes, eagles and scavengers.

You won't find just prairie dogs living in the prairie dog towns. These underground cities are home to many other rodents, as well as rabbits, birds, snakes, lizards, insects and others that benefit from living communally on the prairie.

Prairie dogs are the primary food for the endangered black-footed ferret, one of the rarest mammals in North America.

There are black-tailed prairie dogs and white-tailed prairie dogs. In all, there are seven sub-species of the rodent. They all live where there are grasses, as the animals are strict vegetarians. Each subspecies lives in a separate habitat, according to climate, soil and vegetation.

The white-tailed prairie dogs are dwellers in foothills and mountain parks while the black-tailed prairie dogs inhabit the grasslands on the plains and in semidesert areas.

There were probably 5 billion black-tailed prairie dogs living during the 19th century. Today their numbers have greatly diminished, due to human intervention.

As you may have guessed, prairie dogs are not "dogs" at all, although their genus name, Cynomys, comes from the Greek word "kynos," which means dog. You won't find them only on prairies either. Some have been seen in the high Rocky Mountains of Colorado at 12,500 feet.

The prairie dog is a large member of the order Rodentia, which includes rats, mice, woodchucks, beavers and porcupines. It belongs in the family Sciuridae (squirrels) and is basically a "squirrel."

In actuality, the prairie dog is a burrowing ground squirrel, moderately large, with short legs, a plump body, short tail and long toenails for digging. Its tail will jerk each time it barks, and its tail flickers rapidly when danger is close.

Prairie dogs are plump and may vary in length from 13 to 17 inches. In late summer when they are fat, prairie dogs may way more than 3 pounds.

Both males and females look the same, although the females will have 8 to 12 nipples which can be seen when they are nursing young. Generally the males are slightly larger than the females.

Community life for the prairie dog is organized in areas where weeds and grasses can be cut down to provide a clear view in each direction. They are keenly curious about their surroundings, with excellent hearing and eyesight. You will often see them standing erect, watching, from their burrows. Since they have many enemies, including coyotes, bobcats, hawks and eagles, it is most important that they have this watchfulness.

There are three kinds of prairie dogs with black-tipped tails: the black-tailed prairie dog of the Plains, once the most numerous of the species; the Arizona prairie dog, whose short black tail tip is a little longer than its Plains counterpart; and the Mexican prairie dog, which looks like the subspecies of the Plains but with a longer tail and more black.

Four subspecies have white-tipped tails, both mountain- and desert-dwelling animals. The white-tailed prairie dog once lived in huge colonies in the high country of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. They inhabited sagebrush hillsides and dry mountain meadows as well as ponderosa-pine timber stands.

Poisoning has diminished their numbers greatly, but several colonies continue to exist in both Colorado and Utah.

The Zuni prairie dog, or glo-un of the Navajo, is like the Gunnison's prairie dog, but more cinnamon in color. The Utah prairie dog, in danger of extinction, has a spot of black above its eyes and the end of its tail is white.

Prairie Dog Behavior

Prairie dogs are social animals and their actions reflect this. When enemies are not present, they may be found flattened on their mounds, resting peacefully, with much kissing going on among friends as they busy themselves with grazing, exploring or repairing their mounds.

Young prairie dogs are playful, comical, out for a good time, and often visit neighboring burrows, sometimes spending the night with another litter. They seem to show little concern for danger, yet they learn soon enough the meaning of the voice signals given by their parents and other adults.

There is a social hierarchy among prairie dogs, similar to that of chickens and cattle. A dominant male in a family group appears to have certain rights. For instance, the dominant male may have the privilege of sitting on the highest mound, with first choice of the tastest grasses. He may wander farther from his home burrow than the other prairie dogs, and when danger threatens, he will maintain watch at the burrow entrance and be the last to disappear underground.

Prairie dogs spend most of their time sitting upright and watching for danger or invasion of the home territory by other dogs from other parts of town. Moving objects, either on the ground or in the air, will capture their attention, and they are curious and cautious about inanimate objects that may be foreign to their territory.

The advantages of group living for prairie dogs include escaping danger from predators. So many of them are "on the watch" at any given time, and when a warning bark signifies the presence of something harmful, they all rush to their burrows.

Familiarity among town members is demonstrated by kissing, grooming, mock fighting, and playing. Sometimes any burrow is an escape burrow, no matter how far from home.

Daily life begins at sunrise in a prairie dog town. Sentinels emerge from their mounds with caution. It is from here that the alarm calls, all-clear signals and community chatter informs the other inhabitants of the goings-on. Throughout the day there is eating, playing, mound building, running for cover, and napping, never far from the sanctity of their burrows.

Most, but not all prairie dogs hibernate in winter. Those in the higher mountain areas, where deep snow covers their habitat for months, go into winter dormancy. The black-tailed prairie dogs of the Great Plains have been seen on bright cold days in the middle of winter. They begin breeding in late February in some places. White-tailed prairie dogs breed in late March in Colorado's mountain meadows.

As the seasons change and plant life varies, prairie dogs adapt. Once the young are independent of their parents, either may move into new territory. When autumn arrives, along with diminishing food supply, the animals gradually start to retreat underground, where they may stay till next spring.

Learn More About These Fascinating Creatures!

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Paonia, CO 81428

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