Some interesting facts about prairie dogs

Picture of two black tailed prairie dogs.

Have you ever meet prairie dogs? Do you recall how your encounter with them was like?

Those little creatures were scurrying toward their burrows in response to sharp, warning barks of a lookout signaling your approach.

At the entrances to their underground homes, they would stand upright on their hind legs, looking like little sentinels.

Sometimes they even rose up on their toes as if to get a better view of you.

Not until you were quite close would they quickly dive into the entrances, only to pop up from time to time to see if an all clear should be sounded.

Prairie Dogs

Many year back the tablelands of Canada and the United States literally swarmed with this small rodent, commonly called a gopher.

Farmers and cattlemen preferred to call it a prairie dog, a name associated with the shrill bark it emits when danger threatens.

Not really a dog, the little creature has been described as “a plump, oversized ground squirrel, with a short, stubby tail” that it excitedly flips up and down.

In some species this tail is black tipped, in others white tipped.

The prairie dog’s coarse fur has a gray or reddish tinge, the underparts, throat, and lower face shading off from buff to white.

Tiny, round ears are set close to the animal’s head.

Orange-colored lenses give its eyes an unusual appearance but serve to screen them from the sun.

The tiny, half-ounce (14 gm) pups are born in early spring and are suckled for about seven weeks in underground nurseries.

The mothers pamper the babies by lining the nest with prairie grass or other soft material.

In one amusing case some years ago, the bathroom tissue in a rural school’s outhouse disappeared at an abnormally fast rate.

The culprits were discovered when a long strip of tissue was seen vanishing down the entrance of a gopher hole.

Imagine the cozy den those pups enjoyed!

Since prairie dogs have voracious appetites, they grow rapidly.

In fact, after 15 months the pups are scarcely distinguishable from their parents by weight alone.

Mealtimes are early and late in the day.

Time is taken for a siesta in their burrows at midday, or hours are spent sunning, grooming one another, and generally enjoying life.

Full of fun, the youngsters share in rollicking games.

Picture of young prairie babies playing.

Besides their sharp bark, prairie dogs make a variety of vocal sounds.

When in pain or hindered from escaping a dangerous situation, they emit a high-pitched scream.

Sometimes they chatter by striking their teeth together like their relatives the squirrels.

A rough, grating sound may signal a readiness to attack.

And a female may start a sort of twittering when arguing with her mate.

Surely, ‘gopher talk’ would be most interesting—if we could understand it!

Although the prairie dog is not a true hibernator, in some areas a great part of its winter is spent sleeping underground.

Then it lives off extra fat acquired during summer and autumn.

Hence, only occasionally does it feed above ground in winter—and then only when the weather is good.

A water supply is not of concern, for the prairie dog finds all the needed moisture in grasses and other foods.

Prairie dog town

A group of prairie dogs.

Since the social-minded prairie dog prefers urban life, how fine that it has a natural talent for town planning!

Close-knit groups called coteries share a network of burrows and underground runways.

A large number of coteries live together in “towns” that may cover as much as 160 acres (65 ha).

One of these in Texas, U.S.A., became a megacity, reportedly covering an astounding 25,000 square miles (65,000 sq km), with an estimated 400 million inhabitants!

And just imagine—a century ago these prairie dog towns stretched from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan down into Mexico!

Coterie citizens get along well, grooming one another, greeting as if with a kiss, sharing local gossip (it would appear), and even passing grain from one mouth to another.

But adjoining coteries are expected to observe strict boundary rules, especially in fall and winter.

Dominant males then challenge intruders.

When insults fail to discourage an outsider, stronger measures may be needed.

So the male may execute a “jump-yip”—stretching his body upward and uttering a loud “Yip!”

Sometimes, with his loyal mate standing nearby and loudly voicing her support, he will kick dirt in the intruder’s face.

At other times a real fight will ensue, with wrestling and rolling on the ground.

Some claim that real miscreants may even be “lynched,” then buried by prairie dogs that appear to be enforcing town law. In spring and summer, boundaries are relaxed, again allowing friendly contact with neighbors.

Prairie dog burrows and tunnels

Picture of a prairie dog burrowing.

The prairie dog is rated among the best of animal engineers when it comes to tunnel building.

The amazing entrance to his burrow is an almost vertical chute extending sharply downward for some 8 to 16 feet (2.5 to 5 m).

Just think!

Without winches, buckets, or augers, he somehow manages to bring large amounts of soil up this nearly vertical shaft!

The method of doing so remains a mystery to naturalists.

Using the excavated earth, the prairie dog builds a rampart as much as two feet (0.6 m) high around the entrance to his home.

Using his flat nose as a tamping instrument, he packs it into a solid mound that looks like a volcanic crater.

Besides serving as his viewing platform, or lookout, it helps to keep his burrow dry.

At the base of the shaft is a horizontal prairie-dog subway some 40 feet (12 m) long, with secondary tunnels and rooms branching off on either side.

Gradually it inclines toward a dead end, close enough to the surface to be used as an escape hatch in times of danger.

Should a flood occur, the prairie dog retreats to the farthest end of the tunnel.

The incoming water pushes air ahead of it, creating an air pocket where he can safely wait until the water subsides.

He thus also outsmarts any schoolboy seeking to drown him with a mere bucket of water.

Prairie dog predators

Many predators at one time looked upon this plump rodent as a really tasty meal.

Among them were coyotes, bobcats, weasels, badgers, snakes, eagles, and hawks.

Most deadly was the black-footed ferret, for it was able to enter the burrows without difficulty.

As long as these enemies remained in natural balance, the gopher fitted well into the ecological pattern of the prairies.

However, with the coming of the settlers, wholesale slaughter of gopher enemies began.

The result?

A population explosion of these little “dogs.”

They became pests.

After all, with their large appetites, didn’t they destroy the ranges?

Then, too, their clever escape hatches were booby traps in which running livestock could break their legs.

The die was cast. The prairie dog must be exterminated!

Humans now became the prairie dog’s most dangerous enemy, and the campaign of slaughter continued for over a century.

Since bounties were paid for the tails, even schoolboys attempted to drown, trap, and snare the animals.

Grain poisoned with strychnine and potassium cyanide was planted in their burrows.

Even .22-caliber rifles were included in the arsenal.

By 1957 the area covered by prairie-dog towns had shrunk to a mere 57,000 acres (23,000 ha) in all of western North America.

Prairie dog eradication 

Recently, the case against the prairie dog has been reopened, and it is recognized that in many ways the little creature was unfairly charged.

The ranges were depleted mostly because of overgrazing by livestock, whereas such weeds as Russian thistle, knotweed, and locoweed—unsuitable and sometimes poisonous for cattle—were the “dog’s” favorite fare!

Even destructive cutworms and grasshoppers have been found to be in his diet.

Accordingly, it is now conceded that his feeding habits actually speed up recovery of the deteriorated pasture grounds.

His burrowing and turning over of soil aerates it and provides drainage for it.

If the prairie dog had not multiplied out of control because of human intervention, doubtless he would never have had to be branded a pest.

Today only a few isolated pockets of prairie dogs remain.

Perhaps you have seen prairie dogs in protected areas or in a zoo.

These animals are sure to attract and entertain you with their many lively antics.

Hopefully, growing knowledge about this fascinating little animal instinctive wisdom, unique society, enjoyment of life, and place in the earth’s ecology will teach us not to be quick about judging such animals as unworthy of life.

Rather, may we see in them a reflection of a far greater wisdom that operates for the common good.