Monday, September 26, 2011

a woodchuck shucking

a woodchuck shucking
acorns under an oak tree,
fattening for winter

     When I stop to visit my son who lives in town, a woodchuck is sitting on its haunches under an oak tree, shucking an acorn held in its paws, using its two sharp incisors to peel off the shell to get at the kernel. It doesn't stop when I get out and take its photo. I can almost hear it saying, "If you want an autograph, you'll have to wait until I'm done chowing down here." I have also observed a woodchuck gnawing the hard-shelled, oily shagbark hickory nuts so plentiful right now in our yard. However, unlike squirrels, they don't squirrel away nuts for the winter. This is because woodchucks don't eat in the winter. Instead, they hibernate from autumn to spring in a burrow dug below the frost line. During this time they can slow their breathing down to one breath per minute and their heart rate to four beats per minute, and they can lower their body temperature to conserve energy. This fellow is gorging on acorns to put on enough fat to last for seven or eight months. When it emerges in the spring, it has enough fat left until warmer weather produces the plant material that forms its main diet.
     With its short ears and legs, the woodchuck looks like a fat squirrel with a short tail or a beaver with a fluffy tail. This large rodent (Marmota monax) is also called groundhog, whistle-pig or land-beaver. It is actually a member of the ground squirrel family known as marmots. Unlike other marmots, who live in the mountains, the woodchuck lives in lowlands. But like its cousins, the groundhog likes to burrow, using its thick, curved claws to excavate tunnels and a burrow for sleeping, rearing young and hibernating. The nest chamber is lined with grasses, and there is another chamber for excrement. They can dig five feet down and thirty feet long, and move an enormous amount of dirt when digging a burrow. 
     We have a running battle with a series of groundhogs who have been undermining the gravel foundations of our house, workshop and garden shed. Catching them is tricky because, being mainly herbivores, they have plenty of food all around. We place a stick at what appears to be the main entrance, a round hole marked by a pile of gravel in front. At nightfall, we go back to see if the stick has been moved, which tells us that the groundhog is in its burrow. Then we cover the hole with the open end of a live trap and stake the wire cage down firmly. We also block any other escape holes we find. In the morning, when the groundhog exits the burrow, it trips the gate and gets caught in the trap. Then we take the woodchuck to Turkey Run, the nearest wildlife preserve, and let it go. 
     Woodchucks are usually solitary animals. The male will visit a female in her burrow for mating, but then return to his own burrow. If the burrow is abandoned, another groundhog may move in, or it may be used by red foxes, raccoons, striped skunks, cottontail rabbits or snakes.
     Like squirrels and prairie dogs, groundhogs will stand on their hind feet to watch for danger. When alarmed they will whistle to alert their fellows, hence the name whistle-pig. They also squeal when frightened and the hair on their tails sticks up, making it look bushier. Their primary foes in this area are coyotes, foxes, raccoons, dogs, hawks, owls and vehicles. To escape, they are able to climb trees or swim, but prefer to dive into their burrow.
     The name woodchuck is derived from wuchak, the Algonquian name for the animal. The similarity to "woodchuck" led to the familiar tongue-twister that I grew up with:
     How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
          if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
     A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could
          if a woodchuck could chuck wood!

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