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.
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.
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.
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.