Texas Prairie Dog Towns

prairie dog family

I spent some time this spring observing Prairie Dog towns.  I wanted to see what diversity the towns had among themselves and what birds and animals were attracted to them.  

I checked six towns in the Trans-Pecos and 30 towns in the panhandle. The Trans-Pecos towns were in the vicinity of Marathon.  The panhandle towns were in the following areas; Lubbock, Muleshoe, Hereford, Canyon, and Texline.  Click here for a map.

There were certainly a variety of types of towns, flora among them, and fauna within them.  Most of the large towns, present on the mid-1990s orthophotos are gone today and a few new ones have sprung up.  The general trend looks like a decline in total Prairie Dogs over the last 10 years.  There looks to be far less large towns but about as many small ones as before.  Most towns are pretty new.  It looks like the towns start and grow to a landowner tolerance level and then are wiped out, usually when they reach 40 acres or so in size.  A few were about a square mile in size but most were a few acres to 20 acres in area.  Click here for an example of the changes west of Hereford.

Flora within the towns varied with the age of the town and the general location.  Up around Texline the towns were overgrown with prairie grasses.  This year the grasses have been growing faster than the Prairie Dogs can keep them cropped.  Around Canyon and Buffalo Lake about half of the towns contain grasses and flowers that are over 6 inches high, hiding some of the burrows and the prairie dogs themselves.  Around Hereford the towns are mostly overgrown, mostly exterminated but one old town remains.  It is covered with high solid yellow flowers so that most of the animals cannot be seen but they are numerous.  Most towns by Hereford are recognizable by the yellow flowers that have been encouraged by the prairie dogs.  Further south by Muleshoe Wildlife Refuge almost all the prairie dogs have been exterminated and most remaining towns are small, new and just now being carved out of the thick grasses.  The exception is the town on the south side of the town of Muleshoe that is an old colony.  There the Prairie Dogs have been able to keep the grass pretty short.  The Muleshoe town colony is in relatively sandy soil for Prairie Dogs.  Most colonies are in higher clay soil where burrows are less prone to caving in.  Down at the east side of Lubbock the Prairie Dogs are plowed over daily.  I spotted a town in a field and could not get my car turned around fast enough to look at it before a tractor with tiller drove over and set about covering them up.  The towns around Lubbock are impoverished temporary burrows, moving with the plows and have no particular flora associated with them.
Click here for cropped prairie grass near Texline.
Click here for diverse flora in a town near Dalhart, (Texline area)
Click here for wildflower covered prairie dog town, where flowers grew faster than the square mile of prairie dogs could crop them.

Additional animals seen in the Prairie Dog towns of the panhandle consisted of Badger, Cottontail and Jackrabbit.  These species actually preferred the town, staying almost entirely within them.  I forgot to take any Cottontail photos.  Some Cottontails were settled into Prairie Dog burrows with just ears and eyes sticking out but most were scampering about.  I did not see either Kit Fox or Coyote within the towns although I did watch coyotes lope through the prairie nearby on two occasions. Flattened snakes on the roads by the towns were mostly Rattlesnake.
Click here for Badger.
Click here for Jackrabbit.

  I saw 25 species of birds within the towns.   Birds that seemed to prefer the Prairie Dog towns to the surrounding habitat were Burrowing Owls, Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, Swainson’s Hawk, and Lark Sparrow.

The most common birds of the Prairie Dog towns in the Texline vicinity were Lark Bunting, Western Kingbird, Horned Lark and Western Meadowlark, in that order.

The most common birds in the Canyon-Buffalo Lake Prairie Dog towns were Western Kingbird, Horned Lark and Western Meadowlark.

In the Hereford area the towns had Western Kingbird, Horned Lark, Cassins’ Sparrow and then Western Meadowlark as most common.  

At Muleshoe the common birds were Western Meadowlark followed by Western Kingbird.

The Lubbock area had Western Meadowlarks, grackles and Horned Larks.

The most unusual bird within the Prairie Dog towns was a roosting female Mallard duck that spent the night under a cholla cactus, miles from any water.  She flew off at sunrise.

Click here for photos of common birds.
Click here for Burrowing Owl.
Click here for Long-billed Curlew.
Click here for Swainson's Hawk.
Click here for Upland Sandpiper.
Click here for a bird list of Texas Panhandle Prairie Dog towns.

In the panhandle I saw 52 Burrowing Owls distributed among the 30 towns.
In the Trans-Pecos I saw about 12 Burrowing Owls among the 6 towns.

The Prairie Dog towns seem to concentrate birds and animals.  Here is one example.
Following is a short list of the visible fauna of one panhandle town as seen from one spot at sunrise:

Badger 2
Cottontail 23
Prairie Dogs 873 (visible at the surface)
Western Kingbird about 35
Horned Lark about 25
Western Meadowlark about 20
Lark Sparrow about 10
Mourning Dove about 10
Cassin’s Sparrow about 8
Burrowing Owl 5
Kildeer 4
Long-billed Curlew 1
Swainson’s Hawk 1
Common Raven 1

At sunrise, most Prairie Dogs stopped their scurrying around, stood up, and watched for the sun’s disc to appear on the horizon.  Then they returned to their activities.  The Badgers became less active with sunlight but remained out a while longer.