Long before European settlers built cities in this country, native peoples lived here, in communities scattered across the western Great Plains. They shared their prairie domain with animals who lived in underground villages of their own - the prairie dogs.
Despite the name, prairie dogs are actually rodents - a variety of ground squirrels. They are very social creatures, living together in large family units, each with its own defined territory. A mound of dirt from a single hole may be a foot or more high, and the burrows may be spread thirty feet apart. Their habit if digging many holes in a given area inspired the white settler's term "Prairie dog towns." A town could contain hundreds of mounds, and at one time a community of prairie dogs would have numbered in the thousands or even millions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were prairie dogs everywhere west of the Mississippi River. One noteworthy prairie dog town in Texas covered 25,000 square miles and contained some 400 million prairie dogs. This would have been a sight comparable to the vast herds of buffalo, or the great flocks of passenger pigeons.
By the middle of the century, however, humans had drastically reduced the population of prairie dogs had been reduced drastically, and the once-great prairie dog towns had been reduced to smaller, scattered colonies throughout the western states.
The vast system of prairie dog tunnels helps greatly to saturate the ground with oxygen and rainwater. Prairie dog droppings add richness to the soil and encourage the many plants they feed on to flourish. This makes them the prairie's ultimate gardeners in a very real sense.
Rabbits, badgers, black-footed ferrets, or burrowing owls sometimes make their homes in abandoned prairie dog dens. Snakes and other ground squirrels may also find the holes to be a good place to live or to find shelter from the elements.
In early May, a female prairie dog will give birth to four to eight pups in her underground grass-lined nest. The family burrow may be ten feet deep, with a couple of lateral tunnels branching upward. Within a month of birth, the young pups are active and will venture near the mounded entrance. By the end of summer they are full-grown, ready to dig their own homes and start their own families the following year. They are not true hibernators, but they will hole up in their burrows and stay dormant through stretches of cold weather in the winter.
Prairie dogs face danger from predators such as coyotes, foxes, hawks and eagles, as well as from humans. Their eyes are placed high on their heads, allowing them to peer over the edge of their mounds to look out for danger without revealing much of themselves. Prairie dogs are named for their alarm call, which is a high-pitched barking sound. The excited call sends a warning to others in their community that danger is near and they need to be aware.
Prairie dogs themselves feed on a variety of plants in the prairie, as well as insects like grasshoppers and crickets. They also will not hesitate to eat the eggs of birds that nest too close to a prairie dog town.
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