The adorable and oft-misunderstood Prairie Dog is seen as both a pest and an integral piece of the natural food chain. The name 'little dog' was given to this ubiquitous animal by French explorers who enjoyed the Prairie Dog's tell-tale, high pitched 'barking' call.
There are 5 distinct species of Prairie Dogs in North America: 1) Black-tailed Prairie Dog 2) White-tailed Prairie Dog 3) Gunnison's Prairie Dog 4) Mexican Prairie Dog ( endangered ) 5) Utah Prairie Dog ( threatened )
The most common is the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus), named for the black tip on its tail. Adult Black Tailed Prairie Dogs can weigh between 2-3 pounds and are between 12 and 18 inches in length.
Their short, coarse fur is reddish-brown with a slightly lighter underbelly. Their body is hourglass shaped, often illustrated when they stand tall on their back legs to scout for danger.
Prairie Dogs have 5 clawed fingers on each front hand which resembles a human hand. They are very good with their dexterous hands and use their long claws for digging and grabbing. Habitat and Diet Widely distributed from Canada to Mexico, Prairie Dogs can only build colonies in grassland or short scrub areas. Their habitat also dictates their diet, with grasses accounting for the vast majority of their sustenance.
Prairie Dogs live in large colonies and are very social creatures. Often referred to as Prairie Dog 'towns' or 'villages', a town's average size is about 1000 acres. Within each town, there may exist segregated wards formed by natural or man-made barriers such as a major highway, stream, etc.
It's within these wards where each family of prairie dogs occupies their own acre or so of land. A family will generally consist of one adult male, up to 4 adult females and any offspring.
With up to 50 underground burrow entrances per acre, the families are adept at escape from predation and use the various entrances to confuse potential predators and ensure access to their underground dens. The burrow entrances are encircled by 1 - 2' high dirt mounds which act as lookout towers and entrance markers.
The burrow entrance leads to a well designed maze of underground tunnels which can be up to 6' deep and up to 20' long! The depth of these tunnels creates a temperate environment which enables the Prairie Dogs to escape from extreme hot and cold, surviving harsh winter weather and searing summer temperatures.
Disease, however, can eradicate an otherwise healthy Prairie Dog colony in days. Known to carry the plague and other dangerous parasites, one should never handle or attempt to touch a Prairie Dog. This includes both humans and their pets. Mating and Reproduction The Prairie Dog breeds once a year, generally in the first quarter of the year. Black trailed Prairie Dogs reach sexual maturity before their second year of life while the other 4 species are able to breed just after their first year.
Gestation ranged from 30 - 36 days and litter size also ranges from 1 - 6 pups. Survival rates are very high for newborn pups. Despite being born blind and defenseless, the social nature of the Prairie Dog colony encourages life. Pups will spend the first 6 weeks of their life underground. During early summer, the pups emerge to see the sky for the first time. By fall, the pups will be full grown.
Lifespan ranges dramatically but on average, a Prairie Dog will live to be 4 - 7 years old in the wild. In addition to disease as a cause for mortality, Prairie Dog colonies attract an extraordinary and diverse set of predatory wildlife. Frequenting these colonies include fox, coyote, bobcat, golden eagles, hawks and owls, all looking for a quick meal.
Burrow predators include rattlesnakes, ferrets and even the rarely seen Burrowing Owl.
Prairie Dogs will stand, gesture and bark at the first signs of danger. With advanced verbal and non verbal communication capabilities, Prairie Dogs can act and communicate swiftly. However, a determined and hungry coyote almost always gets his meal.