All About Prairie Dogs

 

 

Scientific Name            Cynomys ludovicianus

Order                            Rodentia

Meet one of the most social creatures on the planet.  The Prairie Dog certainly is the most gregarious of the ground dwelling critters.  Prairie Dogs live in towns or colonies which contain hundreds of individuals.  The colony may contain as many as 30 to 50 burrows per acre.  These towns can range in size from one to one thousand acres.  Within the town smaller groups live in neighborhoods or coteries.  Each coterie is populated by a group of closely related females such as aunts, sisters and mothers.  A male or maybe two heads up this coterie.  These smaller territories may be defended very aggressively from its neighbors. 

Prairie Dogs share most everything in the neighborhood.  For instance, burrows and food supplies belong to the whole group.  This communal living arrangement sees all members defending their coterie together.  The coterie is usually peaceful except in time of breeding season. During the months of March and April, the females display dominance when they are pregnant and lactating.  Females fight during this period and will even raid burrows of other females and kill their young.  As such, females aggressively defend their burrows against other females during the breeding season.  In about six weeks the youngsters make their way above ground and peace returns to the coterie.

When the town becomes crowded, Prairie Dogs move farther out; in essence expanding the town's boundaries.  The old burrows are left to their offspring.  This has good survival value in that older more experienced animals depart to colonize new areas leaving the inexperienced young in familiar surroundings.

The Prairie Dog feeds on grasses which makes up about three quarters of its diet.  In the fall, green grasses become less available and the P. Dog will consume broadleaf forbs.  In winter, the Prairie Dog will eat any available green vegetation.  These members of the rodent family will eat two pounds of vegetation a week.

Prairie Dogs actually clip the grass around their burrows to provide an unobstructed view of their enemies.  Their enemies may be: badgers, coyotes, weasels, golden eagles, hawks and swift fox  The average life span for a P. Dog in the wild is about four years.  Other causes of mortality can be diseases, such as plague.  Although, it is highly unlikely humans may get this now treatable disease from these creatures, it can be devastating to the P. Dog populations.  The disease is transmitted to another animals through the bite of fleas. 

Activity during the day from sunrise to sunset is the norm for the Prairie Dog.  They spend about one third to one half of their day feeding.  Another third is spend on socializing with other colony members and working on burrows and mounds.  When the temperatures climb during the mid day - Prairie Dogs will return underground to avoid the heat. 

Communication among Prairie Dogs is very organized.  For instance, they have at least 11 different calls that utilize a variety of postures and displays.  Signals of alarm and all-clear are some of the calls that Prairie Dogs produce.  Prairie Dogs will run into their burrows if they hear an alarm cry from a fellow coterie member. Even mouth to mouth contact is used to identify coterie members from strangers. 

Are Prairie Dogs important?  As with all creatures of our planet the answer is yes.  P. Dog towns enhance the ecology of their areas.  Many species rely on the Prairie Dog.  Some species feed on the P. Dog, but many others benefit from their elaborate series of tunnels and their habit of clipping grass.  Vacant burrows may be used by cottontail rabbits, other rodents and burrowing owls.  Meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and other birds are found in greater numbers around Prairie Dog towns due to the availability of seeds and insects. 

Prairie Dogs and large grazing animals benefit from each other's presence.  In areas where there is taller vegetation, domestic livestock keep vegetation cropped low which allows the P. Dog to live in areas where it otherwise wouldn't be found.  On the other hand, when bison roamed the plains in massive numbers, they spent considerable time foraging in prairie dog towns as livestock does today.  The Prairie Dog's feeding and clipping activities stimulate new plant growth that is of higher quality and more desirable to livestock.  Consequently, the loss of some rangeland to Prairie dogs can be easily overestimated if livestock are also using the area.

Learn more about the Prairie Dog

Living with Prairie Dogs as Pets.

Digger the Prairie Dog - a Gallery