There is an old Navajo warning that if you kill off the prairie dogs there will be no one left to cry for rain …
Prairie dogs, of the Kingdom of Animalia, the Order of Rodentia, and the Tribe of Marmotini are undoubtedly one of the most amusing natural circus acts on our planet. We watched several large colonies in action during our recent trip, including at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. According to Wikipedia, their genus – Cynomys – derives from the Greek “dog mouse”.
They are very gregarious, social, frisky little things; they cavort; they tumble; they scatter at the drop of a dime. But prairie dogs become quite noisy when startled or threatened, chattering and barking to spread the alarm to their colony. They run to their respective burrows and quickly dive down out of sight while other prairie dogs rise to the surface of their respective burrows to survey the scene.
Some miscellaneous prairie dog facts for you:
In the twentieth century, 98% of prairie dogs were exterminated, mostly by grassland farmers and ranchers. The prairie dogs have now repopulated about 5% of their historic habitat.
Many species of wildlife depend on the prairie dog, and over 20 species use their burrows as a mutual home space or as a refuge from predators.
Prairie dogs have a very advanced communication system with different sounds “or words” to warn their colonies against the danger of coyotes, raptors, hawks, humans, badgers, ferrets, or snakes.
Prairie dogs can run more than 35 miles an hour.
At the risk of being politically incorrect, observing prairie dogs reminded me of the Whac-A-Mole game that first appeared in video arcades in the 1970s. The game featured a soft rubber mallet for players to force a “mole” back in his hole with a solid whack on the head, thereby scoring points. Speed and accuracy improved the individual player’s score. Whac-A-Mole was one of the first of the violent game genre and, not surprising, it was extremely popular when introduced. It still has a place in today’s game arcades and I may need to give it a spin next time I stroll the boardwalk at Hampton Beach.
Taking photographs of the little critters was a challenge until we arrived at a gas station in Philip, South Dakota to gas up the car and stretch our legs. There, like a beacon in the desert, stood a 6-ton concrete prairie dog statue soaring 12 feet above a large and well populated prairie dog town (exit 131 off Interstate 90 onto Highway 240, you western travelers). Prairie dog chow (peanuts) was available for a modest fee inside the Ranch Store.
I would rank prairie dog viewing as among the best entertainment in the whole of the South Dakota grasslands. Oh, and don’t take their “barking” seriously. I suspect it really is just a way to get free peanuts out of our pockets.