Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Prairie dog

with 33 comments

Black-Tailed Prairie Dog 1244

In addition to bison, one of which you saw the other day, prairie dogs have also recently been reintroduced at Caprock Canyons State Park. There are five species, and I infer that the ones I saw are black-tailed prairie dogs, Cynomys ludovicianus.

Prairie dogs are always on the alert for intruders into their territory, so whenever I tried to approach one, even very slowly, it began making high-pitched noises—presumably the “barks” that led Anglo settlers to liken these animals to dogs. Even scientists got in on the false naming, because Cynomys means ‘dog mouse.’ The truth is that prairie dogs are in the same mammalian family as squirrels, the Sciuridae.

From the open mouth in today’s portrait you can tell that this prairie dog was barking away at me. When I eventually got too close, as a prairie dog reckons distances, it darted into its burrow—the rim of which surrounds it here—and immediately stopped making noise. And I, who had purposely not been making noise, went back into my mobile burrow known as a car and continued on my way.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 6, 2014 at 6:03 AM

33 Responses

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  1. Cheers to you for capturing this one so vividly. I enjoyed the story.


    May 6, 2014 at 6:09 AM

    • Thanks, Georgette. I knew there was going to be a limit to how close I could get, so not only did I use a telephoto lens, but I also used my previous camera body, which has a crop factor of 1.6x. That means it effectively multiplies the lens’s focal length by 1.6 and makes the subject appear that much closer. I did the same when taking the picture of the bison that you saw last week.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 6, 2014 at 6:19 AM

  2. I wonder if anyone makes a pet of a prairie dog.

    Jim in IA

    May 6, 2014 at 6:44 AM

  3. Does anyone make a pet of a prairie dog? Ummmm…. yes. His name was Scooter, and he lived with me for several years. He was fun, and friendly, and a bit of a handful at times. Because they’re such social animals, they require a lot of time and interaction, but they do make great pets.


    May 6, 2014 at 7:06 AM

    • Did you raise Scooter from when it was young?

      Jim in IA

      May 6, 2014 at 7:23 AM

      • He was young, but not a baby. He came from people who do prairie dog rescue. I’m not sure what the situation is now — in 2003, ownership was banned by the federal government. Then, there were some changes to the law, and I think they’re legal in some states now. But I’m not sure. I loved that little critter, but I wouldn’t take on another one. It had the energy of a two-year-old and was clearly as smart as its humans. Maybe smarter.


        May 6, 2014 at 7:38 AM

        • Reminds me of the skunk, raccoon, ground squirrels, crow, etc, we had as pets when I was a kid. My two older brothers were always bringing home some critter.

          Jim in IA

          May 6, 2014 at 7:46 AM

  4. Nice capture! This is on my bucket list.


    May 6, 2014 at 7:11 AM

  5. Great photo; so clear that I almost expected to see some fleas on the prairie dog.


    May 6, 2014 at 8:41 AM

    • I’ve long prized clarity, whether in writing, teaching, or photography. The fleas I can do without.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 6, 2014 at 10:16 AM

      • Me too, but I mentioned fleas partly because of this excerpt from the link you gave: ” While they are active above ground, observers might see them engaging in a variety of behavior, including moving dirt around to enhance burrow entrances, collecting nesting material, and scratching at fleas. (Hoogland, 1995)” Did you see any flea scratching?


        May 6, 2014 at 10:42 PM

  6. This is so cute


    May 6, 2014 at 9:34 AM

  7. This is such a great photo. You even captured his whiskers. I visited one prairie dog town on my trip last year and caught glimpses, but nothing this appealing. I like your description of your car as a “mobile burrow,” too — very clever.


    May 6, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    • In a few pictures I managed to zoom in even closer for some head shots (sort of), and there the whiskers are even more prominent.

      I’d had this post ready to go for a week or so but added the final line only at the last minute, which I suppose is appropriate for a last line. I’m glad you like that spontaneous addition.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 6, 2014 at 1:54 PM

  8. Your posts are so informative. Great photo. 😀

    Raewyn's Photos

    May 6, 2014 at 2:33 PM

  9. I’ve never seen a prairie dog, but I love them from seeing pictures like this as well as videos.

    Steve Gingold

    May 6, 2014 at 7:24 PM

    • Now that you mention it, I’m not sure I’d ever seen any prairie dogs in person till this trip. Two evenings before we went to Caprock Canyons, our friends pointed out some prairie dogs in their Lubbock neighborhood, but we didn’t get a close look.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 6, 2014 at 7:31 PM

  10. what a great encounter, and the story made me smile!

    tis time now to shut down the computer and start my full day in quito. i’ve made a slight dent in the number of your great photos i’ve missed and look forward to being back – just not sure when! z

    • Yes, it was a good encounter, and a first for me. I’m glad it made you smile.

      These posts will be here whenever you’re ready for them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 9, 2014 at 9:03 AM

  11. Pesky little squirts when in the wrong locales, but very fun and funny to watch in their own territories. Hope they’re a good re-addition to Caprock.


    May 11, 2014 at 11:18 PM

    • Re-additions are a good way to check that you’ve got the right sums. Oh wait, that’s the wrong kind of addition. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist: math has forever addled my brain.) Unfortunately for prairie dogs, many farmers and ranchers did consider them pesky little squirts and did a good job of killing most of them off. I wondered about the fate of the little colony I saw in an undeveloped field in the Lubbock suburb where my friends live, but they said the field was drainage land and wouldn’t be built on. For the prairie dogs’ sake, let’s hope that’s right.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2014 at 6:51 AM

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