The Prairie Dogs of Tucson: Sod Poodles Return

mom and baby prairie dog at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, image

A mother prairie dog and her baby greet each other with a kiss. | Anne Burke

Road Journals Blog—What’s cuter than kitty TV and more addicting than a panda cam? The black-tailed prairie dog habitat at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

This rock-strewn patch of grassland is home to some 30 burrowing little rodents that settlers knew as “sod poodles” for their high-pitched, bark-like vocalizations. Behind a tall fence, black-tailed prairie dogs scamper about, make chattering noises, disappear down holes, munch on carrots, and stare you down with big, black eyes.

One of the more fascinating behaviors is the “jump-yip,” a territorial display in which the prairie dog jumps in the air with a strongly arched back and lets out a shrill “yip.”

And then there’s all that kissing, which isn’t quite the way it looks. Prairie dogs identify each other by lightly touching their front teeth. Regardless, it’s sweet.

prairie dog with food, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Prairie dogs like carrots and other root vegetables. | Anne Burke

Prairie dogs—the most common of which is the black-tailed species—are native to the western plains from Canada to Northern Mexico. As many as five billion roamed the continent in the 1800s, but a variety of factors —among them eradication programs and urban encroachment—conspired to reduce their population to less than two percent of that number.

In Arizona, where the native population was entirely wiped out, the state is taking steps to re-introduce the critter. In the meantime, stop by the exhibit at Tucson’s museum. Spring is a good time to visit. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a baby emerging from a burrow for the first time.

Where is your favorite place to watch animals in the wild?

This blog post was first published in April 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.


There is something about the desert which is almost spiritual. Once you have experienced it with its variations of temperment and great variety of wild life, to return no matter how long the time, it is like returning to something divine. I lived in Arizona for ten of my growing years and it is still a part of me. I must return at least once each year to renew my spirit.