photo by Leah Verre
photo courtesy of Leah Verre

1. Where they live

At one time there were millions of prairie dogs living on the plains and grasslands. These ground squirrels lived in towns made up of underground tunnels or burrows.

Today, Black-tailed prairie dogs are found in one river valley in southern Saskatchewan (the Val Marie area ) and on grasslands throughout most of western United States to New Mexico.

2. A prairie dog home

Prairie dog towns may contain hundreds of prairie dogs. These towns are divided into wards, then into neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood is made up of family members - babies, brothers and sisters, females and one or two males.
courtesy of USFWS

Their underground tunnels connect to rooms. There are nurseries, bedrooms lined with dried grass, bathrooms and a listening room which is close to the entrance. Here the prairie dog listens for danger before going outside.

a tunnel
The entrance to the prairie dog's burrow is surrounded by a pile of soil. This mound serves as a lookout and protects the burrow against floods.

The tunnels go down about three metres (or ten feet) and can be 15 metres (50 feet) from one entrance to another.
a room underground

3. Appearance

These ground squirrels have brownish fur and white underparts. They have large eyes, short tails ( white or black tipped ) and small rounded ears. They are rodents. They have strong front teeth and sharp claws for digging. The prairie dog is about the size of a football (30 cm.).

black-tailed prairie dog

4. The Young

Baby prairie dogs are born with no hair. Once a year the female has litter of four pups. Pups stay in the burrows for about six or seven weeks.

public domain image

5. Adaptations
  • The front paws have long claws for digging tunnels.
  • They eat alot to store up fat for winter.
  • They sleep in the winter.
  • Prairie dogs do not need to drink water. They can get all of the water needed from the leafy foods they eat.
6. Enemies

Many predators hunt these rodents including badgers, weasels, ferrets, hawks, owls, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and snakes.
an enemy
Badgers try to catch prairie dogs in the daytime by rushing into a colony. At night, they dig into the entrance hoping to surprise the sleeping prairie dogs.

Diseases (from infected flea bites) have wiped out entire colonies.

Man has hunted and poisoned them.

7. Why some people hate the prairie dogs

Over the past 100 years much of the range of the black-tailed prairie dog has become cattle pastures and grain fields. Prairie dog poisoning programs are one way that people get rid of them. Why ? Farmers and ranchers do not see the prairie dog as a cute little animal. Prairie dogs eat the grasses that cattle and horses eat. Since they eat alot of grass this leaves less food for other animals. Prairie dogs can also destroy a farmer's crop of alfalfa, hay, wheat or corn.

photo by 
 John and Karen Hollingsworth, USFWS

8. Protection

Guard dogs keep watch by standing on a mound of dirt. They let out a warning yelp or bark .

more about how they escape from their enemies

9. Food

Prairie dogs feed on leaves, grasses and grass roots, weeds, seeds and other plants (including crops like alfalfa and corn). They also eat grasshoppers, cutworms, bug and beetles.

10. Status

The Black-tailed Prairie Dog is a species at risk in Canada. Some species of prairie dogs are endangered or threatened. The black-footed ferret, Burrowing Owl, and Prairie Rattlesnake are endangered because they rely on the prairie dog for food and shelter.

11. Interesting facts

The prairie dogs got their name from the sound that they make when danger is near. They give warning barks or yips.

There are five species of prairie dogs.

  • Black-tailed Prairie Dog
  • White-tailed Prairie Dog
  • Gunnison's Prairie Dog
  • Mexican Prairie Dog ( endangered )
  • Utah Prairie Dog ( threatened )

Besides serving as food for many predators, their tunnels provide homes for burrowing owls, rabbits and hares, ground squirrels, mice, snakes and black-footed ferrets.

Prairie dogs are most active during the cool hours of daylight. Most of their time is spent eating . They also like to visit and groom each other.

prairie dogs kissing, by Mila Zinkova
image courtesy of Mila Zinkova
They recognize each other by touching their
front teeth together or by rubbing noses.

Prairie dogs communicate with each other.

how they talk to each other

In some states in the US shooting prairie dogs is a sport. Thousands of these animals are killed by hunting and trapping.

Black-tailed prairie dogs are sold in pet shops. Pet prairie dogs can live 8 to 10 years (compared to 3 to 5 years in the wild. )

LINKS to more prairie dog pages | ANIMAL INDEX

web page by J.Giannetta
1998 (udated 2011)

two prairie dogs courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service
black-tailed prairie dog - Jim Rorabaugh, US Fish and Wildlife Service
prairie dog pups from
prairie dog standing - John and Karen Hollingsworth, USFWS
prairie dogs "kissing" - courtesy of Mila Zinkova;
License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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