Prairie Dogs

“Peace, harmony, and abundance don’t just happen by accident; they happen by design, one step at a time.  You have to know what to bring closer to you and what to keep away.”
– Animal Totem Tarot

Prairie dogs aren’t a species I’m familiar with but I’ve really enjoyed learning about them.  There are 5 species; black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison’s, Utah, and Mexican prairie dogs.  They live in grasslands and aren’t dogs, instead being closely related to ground squirrels.  They live in close knit family groups called coteries, which usually consist of an adult male, one or more adult female and their various children.  The coteries are grouped together, forming a ward, and wards come together to make a colony or town which can be home to thousands of individuals.

Family is important to prairie dogs and they are here to ask you about your relationship to family – literally, how is your relationship with your family and how do you feel about the concept?  Today, we are much more open to the idea of found family and that is fantastic!  Beyond family, prairie dogs are asking you to think about your place and role within the local environment and neighbourhood. 

Coteries have complex tunnel networks, with multiple entrances and different rooms for different activities; sleeping, storing food, getting rid of waste, raising young etc.  Living underground provides them with protection against the environment, protection from predators and space to carry out daily living in safety.

In many ways their set up is akin to ours, and like our species, they are sociable.  About half their live is spent underground in the burrows and when they aren’t there, they are nearby.  They stay close to home and, whilst they live mostly peaceful lives, they will defend their territory.  They are a reminder to us that we can, and should, protect our own boundaries, whether that is literal in the sense of gatekeeping who is allowed into our homes or more metaphorical by protecting our emotional boundaries.  Set your boundaries and maintain them.  Let in only what you want to let in.  And don’t forget to set boundaries around your dreams, your goals and your projects.  Not everything need always be open to comments.  If you have a work in progress and you aren’t ready to share, don’t.

In the morning, prairie dogs leave their burrows to harvest grass, but this is a risky job, so one will feed, while another keeps watch.  This is just one example of how they cooperate with each other for the greater good of the community.  They also groom each other, play fight and even ‘kiss’ upon meeting.  It’s thought that through kissing, oxytocin – a pleasure hormone – is released.  During these greet kisses, they open their mouths and touch tongues for a couple of seconds.  They do this a lot, but male-female kisses are rarer than female-female and female-pups so it’s thought that it helps to reinforce bonding.  It is also thought to be a way of communicating whether you are friend or foe. 

As they stay in the same area their whole life, they are vulnerable to predators – once the predator knows where they live, they know where to find a meal.  To protect themselves, prairie dogs have a large array of alarm calls.  They use different sounds for different dangers and can indicate whether the threat is coming from the air or from the ground.  Further they can describe the threat in detail; if a human is approaching the call includes information about the fact it is a human, what size they are, what colour clothes they are wearing and even if they are carrying a gun.  Their language is made up from verbs, nouns and adverbs and they can use their words in new combinations to reflect new threats.  This language is highly sophisticated and is complemented by body language.  For example, tail flagging – where they way their tails around – and their wonderful ‘jump-yips’ which seem to be an expression of joy, and which look like they are engaging in a full body prayer.

 “When a prairie dog sends out the alarm that a predator is coming she or he packs a lot of information into that call.  Prairie dogs say something like, “Hey! Watch out! Here comes Joe, that medium-sized, brownish coyote, over the ridge on the left, coming towards us at a steady pace.” While they may not use these “exact” words, they communicate pretty exacting information about a potential threat.”
– Jennifer L. Verdolin

Verdolin relates this to communication in human relationships, highlighting the value in being very exact and precise.  Her point is that whilst we think we have communicated a message we may have shared less than we think.  She gives the example of a person asking their partner to do the dishes, they say they will, then the first person gets annoyed because they haven’t been done ten minutes later.  The second person hasn’t meant to annoy them or lie about their intent because they are planning on doing the dishes, just in half an hour.  Learn from the prairie dogs and be precise about your communication, it will save you hassle in the long term.

These animals are also referred to as prairie rats as it was once thought they bred like rats, but this isn’t the case.  They breed only once a year and females are only receptive for about 5 hours a year.  This makes baby prairie dogs seem a bit of a miracle!  More so once you learn that half of pups don’t live long enough to breed themselves. Those that do make it show a tenacity that you don’t see if you just glance at them.

Prairie dogs have an important role to play in the environment around them.  Their tunnel systems create shelter for other animals including toads and rattlesnakes.  The bare patches of ground created by grazing attract insects which in turn are food for a number of bird species.  And of course, the prairie dogs themselves are food for animals such as coyotes and hawks…  Kristy Bly from the WWF claims that at least 136 other species are supported by the activities of the prairie dogs.  They even help to aerate and fertilise the soil, allowing for a diverse array of plants to grow.

In terms of symbolism, the Jicarilla Apache associated the prairie dog with water and thought that they could lead thirsty people to water in times of need.  This association is also found in Navajo culture.

A number of websites took the burrowing aspect of prairie dog life as a call to retreat:

“Prairie Dog…calls me when it’s time to rest, when it’s time to honor the internal quest. I go into retreat so I may see, a way to replenish the potential in me.”
— Jamie Sams & David Carson

Other messages from these animals are about the importance of community, treasuring the small things in life even in the face of strife and the importance of setting strong boundaries.  Given their incredible, complex language system, precise communication is also emphasised here.

I nearly didn’t include this, not wanting to end on a sad note, but unfortunately Prairie Dog populations have plummeted as they have become seen as pests. They have been subject to poison and other methods of extermination. They are shot for sport and, like so many animals around the world, are experiencing habitat loss and destruction.

As we’ve seen, these are highly valuable creatures which provide a huge service to their local area and are giving scientists a fantastic insight into non-human languages. Please share what you’ve learnt about their communication skills – it will help others to see prairie dogs in an intriguing light, as well as helping to break down the myth that only humans can talk.

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