Parenting: Prairie Doggin' It

It's a Murphy kid checking out a Wyoming prairie dog in its natural habitat.

David Murphy says wildlife vacations should focus on more than just the large and the mighty; the small and furry can be just as rewarding.
July 27, 2011 5:18:14 AM PDT
Zoos are great for animal viewing, especially since they have everything you might want to see in one, convenient location. But there's nothing like showing your children wildlife in its natural state, as my kids can attest as they recount the various sightings of bear, moose and elk during visits to various National Parks. Of course, wildlife viewing is a tricky proposition, as animals don't always place themselves in convenient, open locations.

An exception to this general rule involves one of the most animated and delightful of wild animals, the prairie dog. Prairie dogs enjoy a wide distribution across the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States, as well as the Plateau regions of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. Unlike most wildlife, the animals are easy to find since they stay in one place for long periods of time, occupying patches of relatively flat ground in "prairie dog cities". These are simple to spot as an occupied field will be covered by small dirt mounds with openings to burrows that make up their community. While prairie dogs spend much of their time underground, they are not nocturnal. In even moderately-sized settlements, a dozen or more of the residents can be seen above-ground at almost any time during the day.

What's Not in a Name

Prairie dogs got their name from French explorers who heard the funny, barking noises made by the animals which reminded them of yelping canines. But prairie dogs are actually rodents, not far removed from squirrels. Prairie dogs play a vital role in prairie life, since the ground they clear to make their cities encourages other animal habitats. And boy, can they clear ground! In the early 1900s, the U.S. government identified a virtual prairie dog nation spread out over a 2500-square-mile section of Texas in which roughly 400-million of the critters thrived.

These days, some species of prairie dogs are on the endangered list, thanks to land development, farming and years of prairie dog suppression by agricultural interests that do not appreciate the animal's appetite for crops. Prairie dog colonies survive, however, in various National Parks throughout the plains and plateaus including Yellowstone, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Badlands.

This National Geographic website has more information on prairie dog habitat and behavior.

When it comes to prairie dog viewing, the best bets are national park locations that protect and play host to colonies. The animals in these environments are used to human gawkers and are not as defensive as those in more off-the-beaten-path locales. Prairie dogs will put up with some limited intrusion before darting down into their burrows. They will happily bark at each other and readily display the kind of antics that have made them favorites of wildlife lovers: standing on hind feet, making direct eye-contact, and sniffing around curiously. Occasionally, you'll find a "barker". The movements the animals make while yelping are hard not to find both adorable and humorous.

Cute, But Be Careful

However, you should caution your kids that these are wild animals that do not take kindly to attempts at direct contact. No attempt should be made to pet a prairie dog. The animals can bite if provoked, and while some prairie dog support groups claim rabies are rare in these animals, infections of other kinds are certainly possible. In addition, no attempt should be made to disturb the prairie dog's mounds or burrows. Reaching into an occupied hole may lead to an attack by the resident. In addition, abandoned burrows are favorite hang-outs for other creatures, including the poisonous black widow spider.

For pure entertainment value, though, prairie dogs can't be beat! And if a national park website lists them as among the resident wildlife, the chances are pretty good that you'll see them, since the rodents occupy their cities for long periods of time, and Rangers will likely be able to direct you to viewing locations. A call to the park ahead of time will confirm this.

---David Murphy

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