Prairie dogs are tan or light brown (the color of sand or dirt), to blend in with their habitat so raptors do not see them from the sky. Black-tailed prairie dogs are reddish cinnamon in summer and more reddish in the winter. They are chubby and have sharp teeth and black-tipped tails.
Adult males and females weigh from one to three pounds. The animals are 14 to 17 inches long.
There are different kinds of prairie dogs. The black-tailed are the most common. Although they are called prairie dogs, they are members of the squirrel family. Youngsters are called kits. A family group is called a coterie.
Range: Black-tailed prairie dogs live on grassy plains or prairies in communities called “towns” which can vary greatly in size. Studies have found colonies with as few as 10 individuals and as many as several hundred black-tailed prairie dogs. Within the towns, prairie dogs are divided into smaller units: topographic subdivisions are called wards (for territorial defense), and smaller social units are called coteries. Prairie dogs communicate with each other using a variety of calls, especially the “alarm” or “bark” to alert the community to danger. Black-tailed prairie dogs are active during daylight above ground all year. However, during periods of cold or inclement weather, they may stay below ground for several days.
Habitat: Prairie dog towns are an integral part of prairie ecosystems and many other wildlife species interact or are dependent on the prairie dog town. Black-footed ferrets, prairie rattlesnakes, eagles, badgers, weasels and burrowing owls may all interact in a prairie dog town.
Diet: Prairie dogs eat grass and sometimes insects, such as grasshoppers.
Reproduction: Black-tailed prairie dog females have only one litter per year. Breeding occurs in late January, February and early March. Gestation averages 28 to 35 days. Young are born in March and April. The typical number of young born to one mother is 3 to 5 youngsters, but they can have as many as 8 in a litter.
Newborn prairie dogs are blind, furless and helpless at birth. They remain underground in the burrow for four to seven weeks. Their eyes open at about five weeks old. Although tiny at birth, weight gain is rapid and by fall, most young weigh nearly as much as adults prairie dogs.
Enemies/predators: Eagles, hawks, falcons, snakes, badgers, coyotes and ferrets will attack and eat prairie dogs. Some people find prairie dogs undesirable and remove or kill them to protect their property from holes and burrows.
Notes of Interest: Using their head and shoulders, the rodents displace roughly 480 pounds of dirt when they form a new colony.
Black-tailed prairie dogs are known for creating elaborate underground towns.
Prairie dogs are known for their complex communication system. Biologists have identified 11 separate barks or calls, which the rodents use to warn of a predator's presence or establish territorial boundaries.
Other names for this species include sod poodles and range rodents.
For more information, see the Natural Diversity Information Source species profile and the Black-Tailed Prairie Dog Species of Concern page.