Prairie Dog Towns Among Northern Arizona Roadside Attractions
On a clear July morning in Northern Arizona, we decided to venture out to photograph a prairie dog colony beside a graded dirt road about 10 minutes from downtown Williams (a nice day trip from Sedona). The sun had climbed a bit but the air was still refreshingly cool at 6,600 feet elevation.
Our first thought was to take a walk and sneak up on the colony, but thinking more about it, we realized it could be hard to get close that way. So, windows down, we drove by in our jeep.
As we approached, a few of the prairie dogs were sitting up out of their burrows, savoring a morning munch on nearby desert grasses. They were apparently used to seeing cars on the road, so didn't show much alarm. I leaned out of the car and snapped a few photos. They continued to pose very nicely. I wanted to venture closer for an even better photo, so slowly got out of the car. I could move forward a few feet at a time, but the moment I hit their "flight distance," a term applied to the point at which a wild animal will run away from a perceived threat, that was it! They just shot into their burrows without looking back.
Prairie dogs are actually rodents, but act very different from most rodents due to their highly social behavior. Colonies are also referred to as "prairie dog towns," and house large polygamous clans usually consisting of one male and several females. They communicate with a variety of calls, and especially enjoy grooming, hugging and kissing each other.
Prairie dogs are quite intelligent and have been kept successfully as pets, although they can be very difficult to keep for those uninitiated to the needs and behavior of wild animals. Ultimately, they are not domesticated and may display drastic seasonal changes in behavior due to breeding cycles; however, their social proclivity leads them to treat their human owners as members of the colony, even responding to their names with chirps and whistles when called.
Prairie dogs are especially important to the ecosystem. Their burrowing areas are considered habitat "islands" and benefit over a hundred additional types of wildlife. For example, they are a regular source of prey (food) for coyotes, eagles, badgers, and the black-footed ferret (a seriously endangered animal). In fact, ferrets use their burrows as homes, as do many other creatures, such as the burrowing owl which relies on their tunnels for nesting sites. Prairie dog burrows also positively benefit the environment due to soil aeration and addition of organic material resulting from their excavation activity.
Although considered herbivorous (plant and grass eating), prairie dogs will occasionally eat insects. They also eat flowers and buds, roots, and seeds.
There has been much outcry over the years regarding the threat to prairie dogs by humans, specifically large-scale habitat decimation or deliberate extermination due to construction projects such as shopping malls and other land developments. The idea that prairie dogs have been exterminated by ranchers due to the threat to their horses falling into burrows has been shown to be largely a myth (see Wikipedia).
Sadly, prairie dog extermination remains commonplace today despite suits filed in the U.S. District Court by conservation groups challenging the US fish and Wildlife Serice's ongoing refusal to treat it as a threatened species.