Meet the Prairie Dog
AMP | Kids is proud to partner with The Mini Page, celebrating over 50 years of providing engaging and fun learning opportunities to young readers across the country. This feature was originally syndicated in newspapers the week of July 18 – July 24, 2020. It is distributed digitally here with permission from Andrews McMeel Syndication. Enjoy and share with the young learners in your life!

If you’re on a driving vacation this summer, keep an eye out for little animals popping up and down in the prairies beyond the highway.

Prairie dogs are great fun to watch. They busily dart from place to place, playing, working to build mounds, grooming one another, sending signals, and even seeming to kiss and snuggle.

What’s a prairie dog?

A prairie dog is not a dog at all, but a rodent. A rodent is a mammal with teeth that keep growing as long as it lives. Other members of the rodent family include squirrels, chipmunks and mice.

The most common prairie dog, the black- tailed, is found on the North American prairies. Another type, the white-tailed, lives higher up in mountainous areas. They grow to be between 12 and 16 inches long.

Prairie dogs eat mostly grasses. They sometimes add sagebrush and other prairie plants and insects to their diet.

Prairie dog sounds

Early settlers called them dogs because their calls sound like high-pitched dog barks. Experts say different barks and body movements send different signals. For example, one bark might warn of a hawk, while a different one might warn of a snake.

Another bark might signal a person approaching with a weapon, while yet another bark might signal that the person is unarmed.

Photo by Nic McPheePrairie dog towns

Prairie dogs live in big underground colonies, or towns. Each family group has its own area, with separate rooms for the bathroom, food storage, sleeping and nurseries.

Texas once had the largest prairie dog town on record. It covered about 25,000 square miles and was home to about 400 million prairie dogs!

Prairie dog mounds

The mounds they build outside their tunnel entrances serve as lookout towers, where sentries can stand to watch for danger.

Photo by Michelle BenderIn order to have a clear view if an enemy approaches, prairie dogs bite off the grass around their mounds. The mounds also keep water from flooding the tunnels below.

If a sentry spots danger, it gives a danger call and then scampers below and listens. If it hears nothing, it peeks its head out for a double-check.

Keystone species

The prairie dog is considered a keystone species upon which other animals depend. This means that if it were to die out, other animals might become threatened or disappear.

Experts believe there are about 140 species of wildlife that eat prairie dogs or use their towns.

However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doesn’t consider the black-tailed prairie dog to be endangered. In fact, in the United States, there are about 24 million of the little rodents.

Photo by Joe Ravi

Prairie dog defenses

Prairie dogs do have sharp claws and teeth, but they are not good fighters. Their only real defense is to run away. They can run up to 35 mph for short distances.

To make their underground towns safer, they dig escape tunnels that they cover up so nothing can come in. However, the prairie dog can open them quickly to get out.

They don’t build mounds near these escape hatches, so enemies don’t know they’re there.

Resources:

National Geographic Kids – Prairie Dogs

WWF – 8 surprising prairie dog facts

On the Web:

The Making of the American Constitution by Judy Walton

At the Library:

Prairie Dog Song: The Key to Saving North America’s Grasslands by Susan L. Roth

The Prairie Dog’s Town: A Perfect Hideaway by Miriam Aronin

For Teachers: 

For standards-based activities to accompany this feature, visit Andrews McMeel Syndication. And follow The Mini Page on Facebook!

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