Prairie dogs are active when the sun is up, and are most energetic near dawn and dusk. The prairie dog is constantly vigilant while aboveground. It can be seen sitting upright on its hind feet while it pursues its main activities: feeding, grooming, and playing. This animal generally is seen from April to October. It hibernates (torpor) in winter, living on stored body fat. It usually emerges in April, though they will emerge earlier if the winter is mild. The prairie dog feeds on green vegetation, particularly grasses, but also forbs, sedges, and shrubs, as well as a few insects. Its colonies are generally smaller and less closely knit than those of other prairie dogs, resembling ground squirrel aggregations, with fewer than 50 to 100 individuals.
Prairie dogs are known as a keystone species. Over 160 vertebrates alone are associated with large colonies. A number of federally protected species are dependent on prairie dogs including the Ferruginous Hawk, the Burrowing Owl, the Swift Fox and the Mountain Plover. The black-footed ferret, an endangered species, depends entirely upon black-tailed prairie dogs for sustenance. Hawks and coyotes find prairie dogs to be easy prey and control the prairie dog population. If prairie dog colonies were eliminated, the coyotes would go after larger prey such as livestock. Some biologists have termed them perhaps the most important mammal on earth.
Prairie dogs are important to their environment in three ways:
- They are the primary prey on rangelands and their colonies also provide a greater density of other prey species.
- They provide homes or shelters for dozens of species.
- Their positive effect on soil and vegetation conditions.
Many years ago the buffalo and antelope found that the prairie dogs colonies provided the best grazing ground. Because the prairie dogs trim and fertilize the grasses, they grow faster and are more nutritious.
Prairie dogs are drought tolerant. In the wild they do not usually drink water, getting all they need from the grasses and weeds they eat.
In the wild, prairie dogs are much harder to spot than in urban settings. These prairie dogs are very wary of predators. With some patience, and persistence, one can sit quietly and observe their activities through field glasses. It is best to blend in with your surroundings and not form a silhouette if at all possible. At first you will hear calls and then eventually see the prairie dogs. It is often difficult to follow their movement, however, due to the natural vegetation.
- Try not to disturb them or their habitat. Wild areas are very fragile and can easily be disturbed. As the saying goes, leave only footprints; take only memories (or photos).
- On public lands with natural habitat, work to improve it as native wildlife refuges or wilderness areas.
- If the land is already protected, help the agency that is over-seeing the land.
- Just picking up litter is a big help and often all that is necessary.
- Do not feed the wildlife, prairie dogs included. Feeding them makes them dependent on humans and food that is not often good for them.