Article image

Bald eagles don’t only eat fish, as prairie dogs will attest

In the vast expanses of the Southern Great Plains, bald eagles, known predominantly for their fish diet, are observed in a surprising new role: hunting prairie dogs over grasslands.

A breakthrough study led by Courtney Duchardt of Oklahoma State University‘s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management sheds light on this unexpected behavior.

Prairie dogs and the dietary habits of eagles

Their research highlights the critical role prairie dogs play as a food source for not just bald eagles but also other raptor species during the winter months.

Titled “Overwintering Raptor Abundance and Community Composition in Relation to Prairie Dog Colonies in the Southern Great Plains,” Duchardt’s paper is a pioneering investigation into the dynamics between prairie dogs and their aerial predators.

It uncovers a crucial trophic interaction that bears significant implications for raptor conservation, especially in the context of climate change.

Ripple effect of vanishing grasslands on raptors

Grasslands in North America have dramatically declined since the 1970s, leading to a staggering 53% reduction in grassland bird populations since the 1990s.

This loss highlights the intricate link between the health of grassland ecosystems and bird populations. Raptors, requiring large areas for their habitat, face particularly severe consequences due to this degradation.

Duchardt and her team conducted extensive winter road surveys from 1998 to 2002 across several states, including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Understanding raptor wintering habits

Their findings revealed that nine raptor species, notably including bald eagles and rough-legged hawks, were frequently found near prairie dog colonies.

Despite not commonly encountering prairie dogs in their breeding territories, these raptors seem to gravitate towards prairie dogs as a reliable food source during the winter, drawn by the “perfectly sized raptor-snacks,” as Duchardt describes.

The study also addresses concerns about the impact of climate change on prairie dog populations, which could, in turn, affect raptor feeding patterns. Changes in climate norms have already exacerbated the occurrence of plague among prairie dogs, potentially diminishing their availability as a prey source.

This scarcity could force raptors to expand their search for food, exposing them to increased risks, such as collisions with wind turbines — a notable hazard for species like golden eagles and ferruginous hawks.

Protecting prairie dog colonies from eagles

Given these findings, Duchardt advocates for the protection of prairie dog colonies as a crucial step towards supporting raptor populations. However, she acknowledges the political challenges involved, given the contentious view of prairie dogs as pests in many regions.

Despite these conflicts, Duchardt emphasizes the keystone role of prairie dogs in ecosystems, underscoring the necessity of considering prairie dog management in raptor conservation strategies.

Raptors serve as bioindicators, reflecting the overall health of their habitats. Their top-predator status is essential for maintaining ecosystem balance. Duchardt suggests that sustainable ranching practices, mimicking the natural coexistence of wildlife and grazing bison, could offer a path forward.

By leveraging innovative management approaches and raising public awareness about the importance of both prairie dogs and raptors, she remains hopeful for a solution that reconciles human and wildlife needs, ensuring that bald eagles and other raptors can continue to rely on prairie dogs as a food source.

Eagles, prairie dogs, and the future of the plains

In summary, Courtney Duchardt’s study underscores the vital importance of prairie dogs in the diet of wintering raptors across the Southern Great Plains, including the iconic bald eagle.

By revealing the unexpected dependency of these majestic birds on prairie dog colonies, her study challenges our perceptions and highlights the urgent need for integrated conservation strategies.

Protecting prairie dog habitats emerges as a critical step towards ensuring the survival and health of raptor populations, especially in the face of the mounting threats posed by habitat loss and climate change.

Through innovative management and public education, we can forge a sustainable coexistence between human activities and the natural world, safeguarding these vital ecological interactions for future generations.

More about prairie dogs

As discussed above, prairie dogs, small, burrowing rodents found in the grasslands of North America, play a critical role in maintaining the ecological balance of their habitats.

Despite their name, they are not dogs but are related to squirrels. These social animals live in large colonies or “towns,” creating complex underground burrows that serve as a hub for activity and protection.

Ecological impact

Architects of the Prairie

Prairie dogs significantly influence their environment. Their digging activities aerate the soil, increasing its ability to absorb rainwater and reduce runoff. This not only prevents erosion but also promotes the growth of a variety of plant species. The diversity of vegetation supports the overall health of the prairie ecosystem, providing food and habitat for numerous other species.

Keystone Species

As a keystone species, prairie dogs have a disproportionate effect on their ecosystem relative to their abundance. Their presence supports a wide array of wildlife, including predators like hawks and eagles, which rely on prairie dogs as a food source. Additionally, their burrows offer shelter for other animals, such as burrowing owls, rabbits, and snakes, demonstrating the intricate connections within prairie ecosystems.

Prairie dog threats from eagles and conservation challenges

Facing Adversity

Prairie dogs face numerous threats, including habitat loss due to agricultural expansion and urban development. Disease, particularly plague, also significantly impacts their populations. Furthermore, they are often viewed as pests by farmers and ranchers because they can compete with livestock for forage. This perception has led to efforts to eradicate them, further endangering their colonies.

Conservation Efforts

Recognizing the crucial role of prairie dogs in grassland ecosystems, conservationists are advocating for their protection. Efforts include habitat restoration, disease management programs, and public education campaigns to shift perceptions of prairie dogs from pests to essential contributors to their environments.

Acknowledging and addressing the challenges they face through targeted conservation efforts is essential for ensuring that prairie dogs and the diverse ecosystems they support continue to thrive for generations to come.

The full study was published in the Journal of Raptor Research.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day