Not all residents of Montana's prairie dog towns are prairie dogs, or even relatives of the prairie dog.
Black-tailed prairie dogs, mountain plovers, and burrowing owls frequently share the landscape in a prairie dog town.
The prairie dog is a cousin to the squirrel. They are social creatures that live in colonies or dog towns that consist of family groups that may include an adult male, several females and their offspring.
Prairie dogs dig burrows for nesting and protection from their predators. These burrows can be up to 10 feet deep in loose soils. Prairie dogs live in multiple rooms--nurseries, sleeping quarters and even a waste area all connected by tunnels. They also have a "listening room" near the tunnel entrance where they can safely listen for predators before leaving their burrow.
Individual prairie dogs cooperate with each other in order to safely forage on grass. Some individuals sit at the entrances to their burrows and watch for predators while the others eat. If those "on watch" spot an intruder, they sound a sharp alarm call and the whole neighborhood runs for their burrows.
One prairie dog can consume up to two pounds of vegetation a week and have historically found themselves in competition for grass with cattle, which can try the patience of cattle ranchers on Montana's prairie. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks appreciates the landowner's tolerance of prairie dogs.
Mountain plovers are medium-sized birds of the prairie—not of the mountains as their name suggests. Prairie dog towns are perfectly suited to their needs. They can easily find insects in the short grass by probing the ground with their sturdy black beaks and they benefits from the prairie dogs' warning calls.
The federal government is considering additional protection for the mountain plover. If it is not listed as threatened or endangered, it will be in part because prairie dogs create a suitable landscape for these birds. Experts believe that in earlier times, mountain plovers followed bison herds over the plains.
The burrowing owl, a small raptor of the grasslands, also lives with prairie dogs, borrowing abandoned prairie dog burrows for nesting and predator protection. Burrowing owls sit on the mounds outside their borrowed burrows and watch for food. Like the mountain plover, they are a Species of Concern in Montana, which means they are at risk for population declines or habitat loss.
Black-tailed prairie dogs, mountain plovers and burrowing owls, three interdependent species, are an example of how some very different creatures can better survive by living in a "community."
For more on Montana's prairie dogs, mountain plovers and burrowing owls, visit the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks online field guide at fwp.mt.gov .