The BioGeek Memoirs: Prairie Dog

Wow, things are really looking up around town this week. The trees are all blooming and I can see that some are getting ready for their leaves to burst out.

My first spring crocus p0pped up through the winter blanket of leaves last week.

We may still get some snow this spring, so the leaves are staying in the flower beds for a few more weeks, but it definitely feels like the tide has turned and we are now well into the new season. Suddenly there are green strips along all of the roads and the fields are flashing green as I drive by… except where there are prairie dogs. Those areas are now bare, and the dogs are leaving their mounds to hunt for food. There are a lot of hungry prairie dogs right now grazing in the fields and along the roads.

These prairie dogs are living between a parking lot and the tracks of a light rail line in the heart of the city where I live.

I love prairie dogs!! There was a colony on display at the San Diego Zoo that was a big hit with visitors, and I certainly thought that they were the cutest things ever when I was a little girl. Seriously, they have those cute little black-tipped tails! They are a riot as they run along the ground. They bark! They are social and very aware of each other while out grazing: a few prairie dogs will stand watch and whistle warnings and all-clears as needed. The prairie dogs living in my city have become nonchalant about moving cars, but if you get out of the car to grab a picture there will be a whistle, the scurry of little prairie dog feet and then the rapid dive down holes. Believe me, I know this well.

See the little head peeking out of the hole? I took this picture through the car window.

I once was sitting in stopped traffic at a light next to a prairie dog colony when there was an abrupt whistle, scramble, and hole dive by all the dogs who had been happily munching on plants a few seconds earlier. Looking to see what had spooked them I was amazed to see a bald eagle soaring through the intersection at the height of the traffic light poles. Wow. That was close, little prairie dogs, but the early warning system worked with seconds to spare.

Um… bald eagles, the symbol of the United States, eat prairie dogs? Yup! Bald eagles arrive every winter here in my state of Colorado to nest and raise their eaglets. The eggs are laid around the middle of February into March, and then the eggs hatch in a little more than a month. Right now, as all the prairie dogs are out and about scrambling for food, the eagles are starting to feed the eaglets. It is a big deal as the nests are enormous and often are in trees that are blocked from the public so that the eagles will be undisturbed; a nest was lost recently and made the news. Those hungry little eaglets are being fed a lot of prairie dogs, to be honest. The parent eagles soar over my city in loops as they search for a meal, and more than once I’ve seen the eagle on the ground with the prairie dog catch. You can access an eagle cam videos here.

Prairie dogs yesterday in the lawn of my Kaiser clinic. If they aren’t chased off this lawn is pretty much doomed.

Yep, that lawn is toast for sure. They are already digging holes into the ground and moving in to stay. So, prairie dogs can be huge pests, but they are tolerated in fields and along roadways all along town because they are essential to the prairie wildlife ecosystem; remember the soaring eagles overhead? Years ago, I acquired a mentor from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who was a great photographer. He worked with a group of my 6th grade students to produce a slideshow about prairie dogs that the students presented to the public at an open house at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge. While working with my students and the mentor we learned that prairie dogs are a keystone species that is important to many other forms of life in the prairie ecosystem. Some animals, like the black-footed ferret, are almost completely dependent on prairie dogs, while they are important to others like bison, coyotes, eagles, pronghorn antelope, and other types of life such as plants and insects. As it turns out, if a prairie colony disappears for some reason, it may be reestablished later because they are important sources of food for so many other species in our area and have such a positive impact on the environment.

Prairie dog in a field by my library.

Humm… why would a prairie dog colony suddenly disappear? Well, as it turns out, prairie dogs can become infected with fleas carrying plague. Yep. That plague, as in the black death plague. Sometime warning signs appear in fields alerting people to a plague outbreak in my area and we all know not to handle prairie dogs or to walk through fields with colonies. It’s important to treat pets for fleas and to not let students bring sick animals (like squirrels) into your classroom!!!!! Plague cases happen here in Colorado and warnings are common. That’s the downside of living along with prairie life in a state such as mine.

So, this all sounds a little grim for the poor little prairie dogs, right? Towards the bottom of the food chain. Outbreaks of plague. Yikes!

Did I mention that prairie dogs are EVERYWHERE right now? Thriving in an urban environment? Living successfully in fields everywhere? And, I want to add, the baby prairie dogs aren’t even out yet. If you think that prairie dogs are cute, you should see the little guys once the parents bring them out. 🙂

The truth is prairie dogs colonies are monitored and protected when they can be. Outbreaks of plague in colonies are taken seriously and the area is treated to halt the spread of the insects carrying the bacteria that causes plague; efforts are made to help the colony recover. Prairie dogs are flourishing, and because they are, they have contributed to the success of other species that are coming back from the edge of extinction or endangerment. The bald eagle, the bison, and especially the black-footed ferret are benefiting from the return of healthy prairie dog colonies.

Yesterday I went to pick up a form from my doctor and there was this little herd of dogs on the side lawn. They had come in from a nearby field and were running amok in the grass. It made me so happy to see them! As soon as I drove over near them there was a bark, a scramble back across the road to the field, and little heads watching me from new holes in the lawn.

I just love prairie dogs!!