The Prairie Dogs of “Dog Town”

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I headed out to Cherry Creek today to photograph the prairie dogs yesterday. Colorado has been in a deep freeze for weeks, and deep freezes have been cycling through the state since Christmas. I’ve been out to Cherry Creek and other nearby birding areas a few times, however the frostbiting cold (at times, -15°F!) has kept most of the birds away…hardly anything to see in weeks. The last couple of days, the daytime temperatures in the sunlight have actually jumped, and are almost comfortable. I decided to take advantage of the momentary warm (truly momentary, starting tomorrow were back in the teens) and see if I could get some better pictures of the prairie dogs in “dog town”.

Dog Town is a HUGE colony of prairie dogs in a wide swath of Cherry Creek along the main loop of the park. It stretches from the western entrance road, all the way down following the main loop road, more than a third of the way into the park. There are probably hundreds of holes, the majority of which are housing individual family groups (from what I could tell, each hole currently houses about 4-5 prairie dogs, and there are clearly a big male, a couple females and few yearling pups in each one.) Each family group seems to “own” a cluster of holes, with a central one often connected to a few surrounding ones (maybe a few bolt holes) via radiating trails in the snow. Separate family groups tend to keep largely to their own little cluster of holes, however periodically a couple of the more adventurous few would bolt at top speed from one of their holes, have a sniffathon with a neighbor, raise their paws up high and cheer, then bold back! Gotta keep the social graces alive in dog town, yes indeed!

Dog town in Cherry Creek is broken down into maybe three major sub groups, or “wards” as they are officially called. These wards are naturally formed, as the swath of land the prairie dogs have colonized has two primary natural barriers…small drainage ditches covered in bush thickets and surrounded by trees. These natural barriers break up dog town into neat sections…roughly two fifths, two fifths and one fifth. The pack of coyotes I mentioned in my previous post must have a den somewhere in ward two, as you can almost always spot at least one of them hanging around there, and I have on occasion caught some photos of them playing and roughhousing around the same stand of juniper and bushes where I photographed the prairie dogs (I’ll share those photos soon.)

Prairie dogs can be a real chore to photograph. In a normal case you set off the obligatory bark alarm, which so long as you are present within their colony, never ceases. I brought along my hide this time, hoping that if I set it up right, and camouflaged it within one of the juniper stands just right, they might actually think it (and me) was a juniper! Well, my little ploy worked. Instead of running on endlessly, the little ground squirrels finally decided the juniper-shaped hut, with me inside and my lens stretching out front, wasn’t a threat, and decided to come back out and play. It took over an hour for all the little critters in the small set of holes in front of me to finally make their way out, but eventually three separate family groups were happily soaking up the rare February sun, and eating whatever morsels they could scrounge up from beneath the snow.

In case you didn’t already know, a furry little ground rodent all fluffed up in their winter garb, bounding across the snow and nibbling on morsels of food are ludicrously cute. Pictures often don’t do their little antics justice. While during winter they are not as active as meerkats, I decided to start taking video clips of these cute little buggers as often as I can. I’ll be spending some time each season to photograph and record video of the same family groups. If I’m lucky, I’ll capture some new additions to the colony, and follow their lives from their first foray into the world, until their first winter. By this time next year, I may have a very interesting little video of the cutest creatures in Cherry Creek for you all.