The Buffalo Prairie Ecosystem

The surprising role of prairie dogs

Published Apr 30th 2000 in Wildlife, Prarie Dog, Llano Estacado

Buffalo relied on prairie dogs. The buffalo prairie before 1884 was not a seamless carpet of grass. Prairie dogs kept it diverse by their constant disturbing of the soil. Many species of plants only grow in disturbed soil—including many spring annuals that provided rich nutritious grazing to the buffalo before the grass greened. Only on rocky ridges or in swales that filled with rainwater prairie dogs did not reside. Everywhere else prairie dogs abounded -- billions turned the soil in West Texas (with the result being as if giant earthworms were at work). In the buffalo prairie days if a person rode a horse from the Concho River to the Canadian River no more than a few miles at a time would be devoid of prairie dogs.

A few years ago, at the Sibley Nature Center, we kept three young prairie dogs in captivity for a few weeks. We hoped a colony could be established. By keeping the young prairie dogs inside we hoped the rodents would lose their fear of humans. No such luck! When we released them, they left the tall grass near the building, and then traveled a quarter mile to a golf course and immediate extermination.

A number of people have been keeping prairie dogs at pets, and report different results. One 4th grade girl reported that hers would follow her around, climb up onto the sofa, and appeared to be happy with its “solitary prairie dog-ness.” We would like everyone that has kept one to e-mail us at bwilliams@sibleynaturecenter.org and tell us of your experiences. Keeping a prairie dog as a pet is a new phenomenon here on the Southern Llano Estacado, and we would like to know what you have experienced.

Prairie dogs are ”varmints” to many country people. A rancher that supplies educational owl vomit (owl pellets) to the Sibley Center kills prairie dogs for the wintering hawks and Golden Eagles that come at the crack of his .22 rifle. His efforts protect his haygrazer field from becoming overrun by the prairie dogs, but he leaves plenty for the raptors the next season.

A long time family friend, a rancher only two generations removed from the founding father, left his prairie dogs alone. His grandfather had noticed the winter annuals in the disturbed areas near the prairie dog holes, and recognized that this was a major source of protein for over-wintering stock.

The only extermination of a “dog town” in Midland in recent years occurred when the young of the year ran out on a busy thoroughfare so often a car wreck resulted. There is, however, still a few good ol’ boys who think a good afternoon’s fun is drinking beer and shooting prairie dogs with high powered rifles, so there is a “splash” effect as blood sprays explosively at impact. They giggle and whoop and holler at the gore they produce. These “fellers” often do not even ask permission of the rancher, but just park on the side of the road and start blasting.

Prairie dogs live in coteries that have one male, several females (one the mother of the other females), and a half dozen young. The male dominates the coterie for a while, but then moves on after his daughters reach reproductive age. Another male then replaces him for the next generation. The females almost never leave, except when population pressures exceed the carrying capacity of the coterie boundaries.

Coterie boundaries remain the same for generations. Male prairie dogs do not vocalize as often as females. Males have no blood relatives nearby, but females do, and to protect their shared genetics the female becomes the wary sex, issuing staccato barks at the approach of a predator. A single clear toned bark signals all clear. Territory boundaries are proclaimed with a quick upward leap and simultaneous bark. Coterie members kiss upon meeting, gently locking incisors in recognition. When a non-coterie individual strays into foreign territory a kicking and biting wrestling match results after belly-creeping and anus-sniffing. Coterie often play-wrestle, and in the process reinforce the politics of dominance.

Prairie dogs will eat all of the aboveground parts of plants, but rarely graze a plant into the ground. Insects are occasionally eaten. When a coterie member dies it is usually walled off underground, but at times is eaten, for reasons unknown. In the spring a prairie dog only weighs a pound and a half, but by fall weighs three pounds. They do not hibernate here on the southern Llano Estacado. During long cold spells they remain underground.

The burrows can be twelve to twenty feet deep and extend a hundred feet in length. Most have two entrances, one higher than the other to ensure good air circulation. The relative humidity and temperature are almost constant within the burrow. Dead end tunnels are excretory areas, and various chambers serve for resting, food storage and nurseries. The lower entrance drops straight down to a turn-around room three to five feet down. The high mound is carefully constructed from rain-wet soil carefully packed with the animal’s nose. The sun then bakes it as hard as pottery.

I once ran water into a prairie dog hole. It never filled up, even after two hours of a inch hose running full blast. Ground squirrel holes fill with water in five minutes. We set box traps to supply the Sibley experiment. In one town no prairie dog ever entered the trap, even baited with apples and lettuce. At another, less human disturbed dog town, dried potatoes lured them repeatedly.

Most of the remaining prairie dog towns are on the slopes of playas. Is it because the forage stays greener longer? How did the survivors of the government sponsored eradication programs of the early twentieth century find the playas? How far will prairie dogs travel to find suitable habitat? (A few have been found wandering the alleys of suburbia, at least three miles from the nearest dogtown.) Have prairie dogs changed their ways?

Playa prairie dog towns seem to remain the same size. Is it because playas are almost the only open grassland? The family friend’s ranch had very little mesquite in the area of the dog towns- their grazing prevents mesquite from growing after it germinates. With the increase of brush and more species of rodents does the cyclic occurrence of bubonic plague keep the prairie dog populations from expanding to historical levels?

When I try to envision the long ago buffalo prairie I am helped in my endeavors by Burrowing Owls, familiars of the prairie dog. The dog owls are insectivores, fond of grasshoppers and the beetles that eat the dung of grazing animals. Ground owls catch a few small mice, but a prairie dog young on its first visit above ground is too large an adversary. The prairie dog feared the now locally extirpated black-footed ferrets much more. I like to think the Owl’s crepuscular behavior is a response to the prairie dog’s ceaseless diurnal busyness and raucous community gossip.

Burrowing owls are clowns. If defending food, they curtsy. Before flying, they chatter—kack-kack-kack-kack. When peaceful they coo like doves. If flightless young are approached they back into the burrow, imitating rattlesnakes with clacking noises. Upon emergence they slowly reveal the top of their head, then their yellow eyes. To discourage mammalian predators the adult owls collect animal dung to flagstone the entrance.

A number of Burrowing Owls have learned that streetlights and lights at sport field attract moths and beetles, where they circle like bats snatching an easy meal. Their insectivorous habits are indicated physiologically by the leading primary feather not having a saw-toothed edge like other owls. Most insects cannot hear, so ultra silent wings are not needed. For the same reason do Burrowing Owls molt tail feathers in the opposite fashion from other owls—from center feathers out? Do burrowing owls maneuver less or more adroitly than other owls? Burrowing owls have less of a facial disc than other owls, indicating they hunt by sight instead of sound.

Male ground owls spend the winter, while females and young migrate. The males prepare the nest for the soon to be incubating females. The many owls of a prairie dog town share one hunting territory. Other owl species assiduously protect individual realms.

To me the dog owls are like the clowns of Pueblo ritual, met unexpectedly, behaving surprisingly. Zuni Indians considered them the underground guardians of the seed of prairie plants. Plains Indians used them as guides to buffalo, symbols of good luck that pointed the way before a hunt. The link between Prairie dogs and Burrowing Owls is mythological, part of the soul of a Llanero, a child of the Llano Estacado. Prairie Dogs and Burrowing Owls enrich the soul.