Tag Archive: Prairie dog

The evening before we headed into Grasslands National Park I quickly flipped through a prairie dog book written by one of the leading experts in the field (Dr. John Hoogland), who has been studying them for over 30 years. In it he describes that while prairie dogs are known to routinely get eaten by a whole host of different predators it is extremely rare to witness a predation event. In fact, his team has only seen about a dozen in the 30 year period!

Having seen neither of these species before, would it be too much to ask to see something like this on my first day?  I didn’t think so!

Badger on the hunt WM

So with this little tidbit of information in my head I didn’t get too excited when I saw this badger eying up a prairie dog burrow.  I was happy enough to just see her and her daughter pop their heads out above ground from time to time. But as time went on and they continued to work in tandem to isolate a series of prairie dog burrows my thoughts started to shift. Maybe today I was going to get a chance to see something pretty rare?  The badgers certainly seemed determined.  They continued to dig under the hot, mid-day sun. One stayed down in a prairie dog burrow they were excavating while the other worked to prevent any backdoor escapes by plugging the adjoining burrows with dirt.

Badger filling burrow in WM

Taking turns they alternated between underground digging and above ground burrow patrol making sure that all the other burrows remained packed down and listening for any sounds of the prairie dogs beneath them.  When the mom was out doing her patrols she suddenly changed from relaxed to on high alert. She must have heard the muffled sounds of a prairie dog barking out alarm calls because she focused all of her attention on the ground next to one of the plugged burrows.

Badger licking lips WM

She carefully moved around the mound and stood motionless for several seconds before gently scratching at the ground with her back foot. She did this for a few seconds and then cocked her head and listened for a response. This was repeated several times and I suspect it was used to pinpoint the location of the prairie dog. Once she determined it was within range she launched herself at the entrance, flinging dirt into the air at an almost unbelievable rate as she quickly closed the gap on her prey.

Dirt flying badger dig WM

After about 30 seconds the dirt stopped flying and there was a pause in the action. In my mind I figured she had caught a prairie dog and was likely eating it within the burrow. After all, I knew that the odds of actually seeing a predation event were slim to none! With these thoughts going through my head I started to relax my grip on the shutter release and I started readjusting the settings on my camera. I should have been more patient because as soon as I lost my focus she came bolting out of the burrow with a prairie dog clenched in her jaws! I fumbled with my camera as she started running towards the open burrow 15 feet away! I knew I had less than a few seconds to get a photo and I madly tracked her with my camera, firing off frame after frame before she disappeared out of sight.  Thankfully she gave me just enough time to get the photo below!

Badger with PD in mouth crop WM

I sat in the car dumbfounded with what I had just witnessed. I scrolled through the images checking  to make sure I had captured a bit of the action but I didn’t have much time to rest. Within a few minutes the mom was back out and heading towards the burrow she had just pulled the prairie dog from. She briefly stopped to look in my direction, which was when I noticed the blood tinged right ear. She also had a cut on one of her toes so the prairie dog must have put up a bit of a fight. In the end it was no match for the badger duo.

Badger mom bloody ear WM

She repacked the burrow with dirt to prevent any remaining prairie dogs from escaping and rejoined her daughter for dinner. Over the next few hours the badgers ate their hard fought meal in the confines of the burrow. It wasn’t until they had finished that they both emerged and relaxed at the entrance.

Badger mom and daughter WM

Luck continued to be on my side and for the next three days they made this burrow their temporary home. Each night they would emerge to play with one another and go on hunting expeditions but I never saw another successful hunt.  I guess I shouldn’t have expected to but it was hard not to have increased expectations after a first encounter like this one!

I think it’s almost impossible to have a bad day if you spend any time watching prairie dogs! To me they are the comics of the prairies.

They can just be sitting around their burrows looking out on the world and they still make me laugh.

PD Budda 2 WM

It looks like this one is creating a new fashion trend by combining a corset with oversized and saggy pants!

You would think something as mundane as eating grass wouldn’t be very entertaining but somehow they manage!

PD grass mouth WM

If that doesn’t get you smiling they become a little less subtle by doing what is called a jump-yip!

PD jump yip 2 WM

A jump-yip is a very creative term scientists use to describe when they jump up on their back legs (sometimes falling over in the process) and make a yipping noise at the same time!

If one didn’t know better they might think they are praying to a higher being and given all that they go through on a daily basis they really do have a lot to worry about. You see prairie dogs just aren’t cute little comedians, they are also a keystone species of the prairie ecosystem. They are the exclusive food of the endangered  black-footed ferret and on the menu of coyotes, red and swift foxes, badgers, owls, hawks, and snakes. That’s not to mention the occasional human that shoots them or runs them over! While trying to avoid all of these predators they are constantly clipping and eating the grass, flowers and bushes to get fat enough to survive the winter. In the process they create a fertile, biodiverse, natural garden that other species like deer and pronghorn thrive off of.  The burrows they build are converted into homes and hiding places for burrowing owls, ferrets, badgers, leopard frogs, prairie rattlesnakes and black widow spiders. Without them several species would die out and over a hundred more would be affected by their absence from the landscape.

Sometimes the pressure of being so important to so many gets too much and they collapse into a heap called the prairie dog pancake!

PD pancake WM

Through it all they still make sure to show their loved ones how much they care about them, even if  it’s not always appreciated!

PD kisses 1 WM

So the next time you see one, spend a few minutes watching them. I’m willing to bet that at the very least you will come away with a smile on your face and hopefully like me, an increased appreciation for all they do for the prairie landscape.