Prairie dogs are stocky, burrowing rodents that live in colonies called towns. French explorers called them “little dogs” because of the barking noise they often make. Today, about 2 million acres of prairie dog colonies, comprised of five species, remain in North America. The most abundant and widely distributed of these is the black-tailed prairie dog, which is named for its black-tipped tail.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are most active in the summer months and spend their days foraging. This species does not truly hibernate during the colder months and can be seen above ground in midwinter. However, they may seek shelter underground for several days during severe winter conditions.
In the spring and summer, black-tailed prairie dogs consume up to two pounds of green grasses. They also eat flowers, seeds, shoots, roots and insects when available.
The black-tailed prairie dog lives in densely populated colonies scattered across the Great Plains from northern Mexico to southern Canada. Occasionally the species is found in the Rocky Mountains, but rarely at elevations over 8,000 feet.
All prairie dog species prefer open areas of vegetation, commonly inhabiting grasslands. They do not tolerate tall vegetation well, and avoid brush and timbered areas. In the Great Plains region, black-tailed prairie dogs often establish colonies near rivers and creeks.
Prairie dogs rarely come in contact with humans; however, they are capable of carrying disease organisms, such as plague.
In addition, rattlesnakes and black widow spiders are frequently found in prairie dog towns. Rattlesnakes often rest in burrows during the day, while black widow spiders form webs in abandoned prairie dog holes. Bites from both of these pests are rare, but can be a threat to human health.
Prairie dogs are also a threat to local vegetation and livestock due to their continual feeding habits.
- Color: Prairie dogs are generally sandy brown to cinnamon in color with grizzled black tips. Their belly is light cream to white.
- Legs: 4
- Shape: Prairie dogs have short, muscular legs and a short tail. Their bodies are covered in rather coarse hair with little fur underneath.
- Size: Adult black-tailed prairie dogs are 14” to 17” (36 cm to 43 cm) long.
- Antennae: No
- Region: Great Plains
Prairie dogs graze to provide a clear view of their surroundings and improve their ability to detect predators. The most effective way to prevent an influx of this pest is to install fences, hay bales and other objects that can be used to reduce their visibility.
Source: The University of Nebraska-Lincoln,The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage