Animals & the Environment: Midland Prairie Dogs

by Kacey Barton

Growing up in Midland, Texas, there are few things I remember as fondly as the prairie dogs that still call the now-bustling city home. I remember driving by the small airport next to the local community college, intently observing the plump little rodents foraging for food and standing guard at their tunnel entrances. Though those colonies were relocated many years ago, I still find myself hoping to see a head popping out of one of the now-vacant holes.

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There is one colony that is still in place from my childhood. They are located on a big, untouched lot, vacant except for the dozens of prairie dogs calling it home. Finding myself in Midland once again, I decided to revisit this colony, which I was informed had pups emerging from the tunnels. This time, I was prepared with newly learned skills in photography and a better lens. I was excited to see these guys up close and observe their behavior in a way I had never experienced before.

Getting close to these flighty animals was no easy task; they were spooked by my initial arrival. Prairie dogs have one of the most complex animal languages decoded by man so far, even more complex than that of chimpanzees. One sounded an alarm and all of them retreated into their extensive network of tunnels for a few minutes. Finally they emerged cautiously one by one and came out again.  I learned that as long as I stayed a few feet away from the lot in any direction, they ignored my presence.

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I was able to see their curious ways of communicating with each other - their jumping yips, tail twitching, grooming practices, warning bites and guarding stances all things new to me. The pups even seemed to be more carefree than their adult counterparts, playing around the entrances to tunnels while their family kept watch.

I believe getting outside and observing the wildlife around you is a good way to connect with nature in a world where we are usually kept so separate. I was able to experience and learn more about these animals I had grown up with, and I hope to have the same opportunity with other animals in the future.

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