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The call went out to the lads of Silver City: This means war!

Pay to Play
The fledgling Las Cruces Vaqueros' field of dreams

Kiss of the Prairie Dog
Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the billions

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010

Kiss of the Prairie Dog

Though no longer numbering in the billions, black-tailed prairie dogs still build sprawling towns in which they socialize, keep a lookout — and greet each other with a "kiss."

Story and photos by Jay W. Sharp

"They were good company," J. Frank Dobie said of prairie dogs in his A Vaquero of the Brush Country. "We listened to their chatter along the trail; we talked back to them; we shot at them. When there were rocks within reach, we chunked at them. Occasionally a cowboy would get one of the little creatures cut off from the town of holes and then a merry chase would follow. In after years I was to live much among prairie dogs, but I have never wearied of their company."

whistle pig
Single black-tailed prairie dog, on alert for potential predators.

The black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) — a chubby rodent related to the ground squirrel — measures about a foot in length. Its distinctively black-tipped tail adds another three or four inches in length. The male weighs about two to three pounds, several ounces more than the female. The animal has a brownish tan to yellowish tan coat with a buff or whitish belly. It has short front legs with small paws but well-developed digging claws. It has muscular back legs, which propel it in its short dashes to escape predators. It has relatively large eyes and small ears. It has keen eyesight and hearing, which help it detect and elude those that would eat it up.

At one time, the black-tailed prairie dogs' range, according to the Defenders of Wildlife, extended from southernmost Canada southward across the Great Plains into northern Mexico. They occupied an area that spanned somewhere between 60,000 to 120,000 square miles or 10% to 20% of the entire region. Around 1900, the total population, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, may have equaled some 5 billion.

Early in the 20th century, the black-tailed prairie dog occurred in scattered locations across southwestern New Mexico, extending as far north as Silver City and Cliff, according to William E. Van Pelt in "The Black-tailed Prairie Dog Conservation Assessment and Strategy." About 1900, according to one account, a population exceeding 6 million occupied most of the Bootheel's Animas Valley — an area of about 1,000 square miles. (By comparison, a single prairie-dog population exceeding 400 million occupied some 25,000 square miles in the Texas Panhandle's short-grass prairielands, where the grasses grew in greater abundance.)

The animals favored the openness of the short-grass prairielands of the High Plains, the mixed-grass prairielands of the Rolling Plains, and the semi-arid grasslands of the Chihuahuan Desert, preferably at elevations below 6,000 feet. Typically, they colonized relatively flat areas covered with short vegetation. They counted on an unimpeded view to help them spot would-be predators.

The prairie dog found the Animas Valley attractive because, historically, that area offered a mix of grasses such as the dominant black grama as well as blue grama, buffalo grass, tobosa, bushmuhly and others. The valley also supported a selection of forbs (broadleaf plants with non-woody stems) such as globe-mallow, golden weed, snakeweed and nightshade.

Prairie dogs fed on the seeds, leaves, stems, shoots and roots of the grasses and selected forbs, which made up 98% of its diet according to the national zoo. They also, occasionally, dined on insect delicacies such as grasshoppers and beetles. They met their needs for water with moisture from the plants. The prairie dogs ate heavily, especially in the fall, adding the weight necessary to sustain them through semi-hibernation during winter storms and exceptional cold. In southwestern New Mexico, they favored the gramas and the buffalo grass.

Community and Home

Usually, the black-tailed prairie dog — among the most social and gregarious of the mammals — lives in "towns." At one time, the prairie dog's communities typically covered 20 to 100 square acres and sometimes spanned thousands of square miles. Now, with shrinking populations, these communities cover much smaller areas. Within a town, the animal lives in "wards," or neighborhoods, which usually lie bounded by features such as streambeds, roadways or tree lines. Within the wards, adult males live with their families — each typically including one to four adult females plus new and juvenile offspring — in territorial compounds called "coteries."

Prairie Dog Tales

According to legend, the prairie dog, a gracious host, provides a home for burrowing owls (or "prairie dog" owls), rabbits and rattlesnakes within its burrow, where they all live together in perfect harmony. "Old-time cowpunchers knew this to be a fact," said Mody Boatright and his co-editors in Texas Folk and Folklore, "but the prairie dogs and the scientists have always disagreed."

"Old Man" Charlie Goodnight (as my grandfather and others of Texas' Plains called the co-founder of the Goodnight-Loving Trail, over on the Pecos River) said that he once rescued a prairie dog from the waters of an icy river, according to a yarn in A Treasury of Western Folklore. He soon tamed the grateful creature. "At night the cowboys took it from the wagon and turned it out to graze, and as the animals make most interesting pets, the boss claimed the boys 'had a hell of a time playing with it.'"

In constructing its burrow, the prairie dog uses its front claws to excavate several steeply inclined entranceways and several tunnels and chambers, which sometimes connect with neighboring burrows. Lying 15 or more feet beneath the surface, the tunnel network may extend for 90 or more feet laterally, according to the Prairie Dog Coalition. Tunnels lead to hollowed-out and grass-lined chambers that serve as nurseries, bedrooms and bathrooms. Another type of chamber, near an entrance, serves as a "listening room," where the animal can take a precautionary pause to listen for danger before emerging from the burrow.

Always wary of threats posed by predators, the prairie dog creates an elevated "lookout" by piling excavated soil into a roughly conical-shaped, two- or three-foot high mound around each burrow entrance. (The mound also helps hold back flooding of the burrow.) The animal maintains an unimpeded view of the surrounding landscape by clearing vegetation from the immediate vicinity around each entrance, sometimes even girdling nearby shrubs to kill them and eliminate potential vegetative concealment for predators.

Behavior and Life Cycle

The black-tailed prairie dog makes its home neighborhood a lively place, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Under the watchful eye of sentries posted atop the burrow mounds, the animals feed on the grasses and forbs near their coterie. They socialize among themselves, recognizing and greeting each other with a prairie dog "kiss," or a gentle bumping of bared incisors.

They cooperate in building burrows. They groom each other. They chat among themselves, sometimes issuing a series of specialized calls that signify territorial claims, defensiveness, anger and fear. Should a sentry sound the alarm signal — a two-syllable rapidly repeated bark — the prairie dogs sprint to their burrows, where they wait for an "all clear" signal before they reemerge and resume the day's business. The whole town celebrates the passing of danger by jumping and yipping joyously.

With sexual maturity coming at about two years of age, the prairie dog usually mates in the early spring, underground in a burrow. Four or five weeks later, the female delivers a litter — her only one for the year — of two to eight hairless pups. She nurses her young for about six weeks. By late spring, the pups emerge from their burrow for the first time to begin grazing.

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