Volume 3 - No. 2
By Kennedy N. Clapp,
Prairie dogs were numbered in the millions, 40 years ago. Today, they are rightfully and rapidly approaching extinction on a agricultural lands, under the government sponsored poisoning and gassing program. Economically, I offer no brief, for the prairie dog. He is a pest, destructive to agriculture, and a menace to cattlemen, sometimes reducing potential grazing by as much as 80 per cent. But there are other phases of him for which I plead his restricted preservation. He is as symbolic of the Old West as the cowboy. Both are fast disappearing and becoming difficult to find - the former, due to his misdeeds; the latter, from the evolution of cowponies to automobiles.
The prairie dog is an interesting little fellow to those who delve into his peculiar and sociable homelife, or who domesticate him into a very affectionate, and mischievous pet. Wild or tamed, he is a top-hand in promoting chuckles and those deep abdominal risibilities, vulgarly termed "belly-laffs." He is not a dog. The name is a misnomer, and is said to have been used first by members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, due to the barking cry. He is a rodent, a member of the squirrel family; and a near relative of the woodchuck or ground hog, that well known "forecaster" of spring. The adult is 12 to 15 inches in length, and weighs from 2 to 3 pounds. The color is greyish to reddish brown, with a short black-tipped tail. There is a white tailed subspecies in the Rocky Mountain region.
Their habitat formerly was the dry Great Plains, from Montana to Mexico. Their colonies varied in number from a few to millions. A dog-town of any size today is rare. In the 1901 Department of Agriculture Yearbook, Dr. C. H. Merriam wrote: "Colonies 20 to 30 miles in length are not rare, and in Texas one is known which measures about 250 miles one way by 100 to 150 miles the other, covering an area of about 25,000 square miles. x x x It is certainly a conservative estimate to assume the average number of animals to be 25 per acre. On this assumption, the number of prairie dogs in the great Texas colony must be at least 400,000,000."
My home, in Lubbock, Texas, is about the center of the area formerly occupied by this "yipping" host. Today, there may be a scattered 5,000 dogs within a 100-mile radius. The only town in this vicinity not facing quick extermination is one in Mackenzie State Park in Lubbock. I hope that this small colony may be preserved. It is of great interest to sightseers, especially tourists from the south and the east.
Prairie dog homes are L-shaped burrows, 12 to 20 feet in depth vertically, and 6 to 15 feet horizontally. The accompanying diagram of a burrow is a composite of several drawings that have been made of excavated homes. All features shown in the diagram are not in every burrow. The entrance is banked with earth to keep out water. The size of the mound depends upon location and rainfall. The mound and hole resemble a miniature volcano. From 3 to 6 feet below the entrance is a small room to which the animal retires when first frightened into his hole. There he may be heard barking and scolding. If he hears the intruder approaching too near, down he slips to the bottom. It is a place where he may halt, turn around and go back for a peep, or come out if the "all clear" signal is sounded by other dogs.
The horizontal passage has an upward elevation with the nests connecting and generally above it. Occasionally, a nest is below; sometimes one is built off the vertical passage. Where the horizontal passage continues to the surface, it appears to be used only in construction for the easy disposal of earth, being partially or completely filled with dirt and trash. A single entrance is the rule. However, double ones are occasionally found, but seldom is the dirt dump passage one of them.
The little animals are wary. They allow no vegetation to grow higher than six inches, within 100 feet of their burrow, thus providing a clear view of approaching enemies. They seldom go farther than 100 feet from a hole. The approach of an intruder is signaled by a Yip! Yip! Yip! Instantly, every dog "freezes", and is alert. A fourth yip from the alarmer, and all dogs scurry for their holes, sit up on the rim of their craters in readiness to dive to safety. If the foe approaches too closely, there is a babel of yips and all dive into their burrows. Prairie dogs that are shot when on the alert over their holes, seldom fail to make a death leap into their burrows.
In construction activities the dogs display ingenuity. If the earth is damp, it is made into balls for removal to the surface; if dry, it is carried out in armfuls. The nose and head are used to tamp the earth to firmness around the entrance hole and the inside of the crater. When there is a general repairing of mounds in the colony, we may anticipate rain.
They are vegetarians from circumstances only, as they are omnivorous in captivity. Their food is the plant life about them: grass, weed seeds, leaves, stems, and roots. Like desert rodents, they subsist without water ,the necessary moisture being obtained from green food. The common belief that all towns have a hole dug to the depth of water is a fallacy. Drillings for oil have been made in towns with no water being found down to 1,000 feet.
The animals are semihibernating, climate determining the sleeping periods. In the Texas Panhandle, they appear daily after noon when the temperature is above freezing and the weather not inclement. They are seldom seen when the thermometer registers as low as 20 degrees. No winter storage of food has been noted. They acquire a heavy layer of fat on their bodies in the late summer and fall, which carries them through the winter. The young are generally four in number and appear in late spring. There are few bachelors and old maids, judging from the rapid increase in the Mackenzie State Park colony.
Their principal enemies are the rattlesnake, ferret, coyote, and badger. It is a myth that the rattlesnake and the "dog" dwell amicably together. They are mortal enemies, and each fears the other. If his snakeship enters an inhabited burrow, Mr. and Mrs. Dog leave in haste, if they can escape. They emerge shrieking the bad news, and immediately start plugging the entrance. Neighboring dogs rush to their assistance, and the dirt "flies", from the vigorous scratching. Many noses pack the earth hard, and the snake is entombed. Old dogs have seldom been found in the stomachs of snakes that have been dissected. The snake apparently is fearful of being buried alive. He watches and enters holes when the parents are away, to catch young dogs in the nest. He seems to be aware of the danger, as a handful of earth dropped down the hole will bring him out in a hurry. There is no response to the same procedure when he is in a subterranean nest of the pack rat, for these latter rodents do not entomb him. Snakes frequently enter the rat nests and await the owner's return.
Burrowing owls live in abandoned burrows to save the trouble of digging their own homes. They are not averse to a meal of young dog, if they can catch one, but they are quickly torn to pieces by adult dogs, if caught in the burrow.
Of the many pets that my family has had, we rate our prairie dog, Peter, near the top. When he arrived competition was strong among the members of our backyard zoo, for the favor of my two young daughters. This zoo, collected by a Boy Scout troop, was a miscellany of birds, reptiles, and mammals, ranging from a wing-crippled crow to an untamable bobcat. Buff, a canine of uncertain ancestry, was supreme in my daughters' affections. Next came Kingy, a 3-foot kingsnake. Then in descending scale were Billy Coon, Flops Rabbit, Jim and Molly Whiterat, Quacky Mallard, and Goofus Armadillo. So Pete had a job to become one of the favored few, but he took the task in stride and soon was in the select circle.
Peter was probably two months' old when "drowned out" and captured, a pitiful, bedraggled, terrified little fellow. He tamed quickly, and soon would cuddle contentedly when his stomach was rubbed. That was always the acme of bliss to Pete. A horned toad is the only other creature I have seen that enjoyed it so much. Pete would lie with closed eyes so long as one would rub, and he would occasionally emit a little yip of delight. His wire cage in the kitchen included a small wooden box for a boudoir. We offered him a variety of bedding materials, such as grass, cotton, wool, and leaves. He would have none of them but stole a woolen dustrag, tore it to bits, shredded a newspaper which was on the bottom of the cage, and made a soft, warm bed.
Pete's appetite was wonderful to behold. Living in the kitchen suited him. Eventually this appetite caused a pronounced middle-aged spread, and reduced his scampering to an awkward waddle. We fed him green stuff and grain, but anything edible was acceptable for a snack between meals. He especially liked apples and carrots. His habits were cleanly, and we gave him the run of the house. His cage boudoir was seldom used, except at night. Pete loved warmth and darkness, and quickly located several snoozing hideaways in wooly robe pockets and the like. He enjoyed getting inside my shirt while I was reading. When small and active, he would occasionally climb a leg of my trousers and get into the outside breastpocket of my coat, or into the pocket of my shirt. With his head peeping out, he would "strawboss" the work I might be doing, and would vigorously scold any strange dog or cat that came around. He and our dog, Buff, early accepted each other as members of the family. They never became chummy but there was little discord between them.
A phrenologist might have found a large bump of curiosity on Pete's head. Anything unusual must be investigated. Wastebaskets fascinated him; their contents must be examined several times daily. An unopened package, especially in the larder department, worried him. His nosey proclivities often ended in trouble. Once he explored the inside of an unlighted furnace. We found him wedged between the grating bars, weak from his struggles to escape. He was black from soot, necessitating the only bath of his checkered career. There was a basement window at ground level where he seldom missed the opportunity of barking at his reflection. He was so vociferous on those occasions that he frequently upset himself and went over backwards.
Pete passed on to prairie dog heaven in his third year. While endeavoring to reach a piece of toast from the oven top, he fell into a pot of boiling water. He was ceremoniously buried in our pet cemetery, under the lilac bushes.
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