“dogs” of the prairie

The French explorers of mid-continental North America thought the squirrel-sized rodents that yipped at them from their prairie mounds sounded like dogs, so they called them prairie dogs, and the name stuck.

The yipping is a part of their elaborate communication with other prairie dogs in their often expansive “towns”, such as the one at the edge of our campsite at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

My granddaughter was delighted to see the prairie dogs from just 8 feet away.

My granddaughter was delighted to see the prairie dogs from just 8 feet away at the edge of their burrow entrance.

Prairie dog towns can consist of hundreds to thousands of individuals, depending on the area inhabited.  They will colonize tall grass, short grass, mixed grass, native prairies, or grazed pasture, as long as the soil is conducive to digging an elaborate burrow system.

Sentries sound the alarm when predators or other threats pose a danger to the colony.  But there is debate about whether the sentry is trying to warn close relatives or simply cause widespread panic wherein some hapless prairie dog dashes into the clutches of the predatory threat.

prairie dog sentry sending a warning

This one was chirping and tail flicking while trying to determine whether I was a threat or not.

This one was chirping and tail flicking while trying to determine whether I was a threat or not.

Five species of prairie dogs were once common throughout the wide swath of grassland from central Canada to Mexico.  However, they have been labeled a pest species because they compete with cattle for grass, and have been largely eliminated from a large part of their range. In fact, prairie dogs improve the biodiversity of the patch of grasslands they inhabit, increasing both plant and animal species found there.

Prairie dogs are rather non-selective in their grazing, and by eating everything equally, they prevent dominant species from taking over, thereby increasing diversity.

Prairie dogs are rather non-selective in their grazing, and by eating everything equally, they prevent dominant species from taking over, thereby increasing diversity.

Bison and antelope prefer to graze near prairie dog towns because the grasses are more diverse and more nutritious.  A variety of species utilize abandoned burrows:  burrowing owls, snakes, assorted invertebrates like spiders and

Bison and antelope prefer to graze near prairie dog towns because the grasses are more diverse and more nutritious. A variety of species utilize abandoned burrows: burrowing owls, rabbits, snakes, assorted invertebrates like spiders and scorpions, even their chief predator, the Black-footed Ferret.  From the Prairie Dog Coalition.

Black-tailed Prairie dogs, like the ones at Devil’s Tower, use their burrows as refuges from predators, as sleeping, birthing and pup-rearing chambers, and as winter food storage areas.

Spring on the prairie brings a new flush of green grass, and a new crop of youngsters ready to go out on their own.

prairie dogs

A youngster emerged from its burrow, followed by a parent, who proceeded to groom the youngster's back for several minutes while siblings looked on.

A youngster emerged from its burrow, followed by a parent, who proceeded to groom the youngster’s back for several minutes while siblings looked on.

10 thoughts on ““dogs” of the prairie

    • Possibly for that reason, plus the reduced grass height around the prairie dog town, and the number of mounds with bare dirt showing makes ranchers feel that the quality of the pasture has been reduced. But the fact that buffalo and antelope actually seek out these areas to feed weakens the ranchers’ arguments.

  1. Devil’s Tower is one of the favorite spots I have been to, ever. There is something spiritually remarkable about the place. How great that you are there with your Grandchildren! Becky and husband too?

    • First time we went there we hiked from the tower tour campsite at sunset, and it was magical. This time we did the same hike in the middle of the day, and it was beautiful but not the same experience at all.

  2. Another wonderful and very interesting post. The Devil’s Tower is on my bucket list. I love the Prairie Dog photos. I went through a Prairie Dog town when we visited North Dakota years ago. Can’t wait to see them again in their natural world.

    Wishing you a happy day,
    Denise
    An English Girl Rambles

    • Thanks, Denise. Devil’s Tower was an add-on to the trip agenda. Our real focus was the wilds of the Black Hills and Custer State Park. I think that should be on your bucket list too. The wildlife is amazingly tame, and there is so much of it.

  3. I find it wonderful that you are able to take the time to share this trip through your blog while on the road. Many thanks!

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