Sunday, May 10, 2009

Black-tailed Prairie Dog

All the world loves baby animals. I have never seen baby Prairie dogs. The entire litter is here checking out the big, wide world.

Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers out there in the natural world who work so hard to perpetuate the species. It is a thankless job no matter what "team" you play for.

These Black-tailed Prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) were born close to 30 days ago. They were the size of a newborn kittens and just as curious. They were too naive to know that a large towering biped approaching their hole was a potential threat and let me get within 10 feet of them. Had I been a carnivore, these young ones would have been dinner. At another location, the babies were well protected by sentinel adults that started "barking" the moment I got too close. The only adult I saw in this area though was above ground and foraging 10 yards away.

The specimen on the left shows just how tiny these pups were.

Prairie dogs are not canines, but rodents. They earned their name precisely because of noisome warning cry. There is a trail I like to run in Boulder that traverses a large group. I feel like an ultra-marathoner being cheered on by the crowd every time I pass through. The cry is rather high-pitched though and very annoying...just as Mother Nature intended.

Prairie dogs are very social and live in large underground colonies. These can grow to be over 100 acres. Like any good solider, they clear all the vegetation away from their "fort". That is easy to do for the grass-chomping Prairie dog.

An adult. Half hidden in the burrow, you can see how bulbous they look above ground. Fashion models they are not.

Prairie dog burrows aerate the ground and funnel run off into the water table, thereby reducing erosion. Prolific diggers, their tunnel systems can descend as much as 16 ft and traverse as much as 100 feet. The tunnels also provide homes from other animals like the Burrowing Owl. These tunnels combined with the Prairie dog's tendency to take over all available space have turned them into a pest in modern society. Even Boulder, animal-loving capital of the universe, struggles with what to do with them. There is no way to contain them to open space. They move in to schoolyards, trails, soccer fields, and airport runways.

There must be millions of Prairie dogs in Colorado. The Black-tailed is the most prolific but two other species, the White-tailed Prairie dog and Gunnison's Prairie dog also live here. The infant photos were taken on the Bitterbrush Trail (Hall Ranch) in the highest colony in Boulder County (at 6300 ft). The adult photo was taken at a local dog park.


Lindy MacDuff said...

They are very cute. Enjoyed the information. They sound as pesky as the packrats we deal with at our home in Arizona.

Linda said...

Seems an exotic pest to me, as well as a cute one. But I can understand from your description the big impact that these small creatures make.

Tina said...

Your are so right...most babies are sooo cute and these little guys are adorable...but then there are some babies that the line, "only a face a mother could love" comes to mind! lol!
Cute post and I love that they cheer you on as you run by...
Hope you had a good weekend.

Linda said...

Talking with an American newly-discovered distant relative by marriage yesterday, who used to be in the army, he was saying that the fleas on prairie dogs still carry the Black Plague, and that the military monitors the density of plague-carrying fleas on them. Once they reach a certain level they carry out a cull of the prairie dogs.

sylvia murphy said...

HI Linda,

It is quite true that Prairie dogs carry the plague. I decided not to mention that because these young ones were so cute. No point in dwelling on the fact that they are also VECTORS OF DISEASE :)

I have seen trails closed because a nearby colony is badly infected.

Linda said...

Ooops, so sorry, in my curiosity I've punctured the cute factor! In recompense I'll try to find a Scottish cute but secretly nasty creature to post. Hmmm - out of tune bagpipers in the tourist season?