Famous rodent neither chucker of wood nor meteorologist
“How much wood could a woodchuck chuck
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
As much wood as a woodchuck could chuck,
If a woodchuck could chuck wood.”
– Mother Goose
Friday was Groundhog Day, and Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter. There are indeed six weeks and two days until the Vernal Equinox and the first day of spring.
However, I don’t rely on a rodent to forecast long-range weather. For me signs of spring are the steam rising from the top of a maple sugar shack, pussy willow buds swelling on a branch and the sound of the first peepers.
My first experience with woodchucks, which are also called groundhogs, probably was the tongue twisting Mother Goose nursery rhyme. My second experience with Marmota monax was witnessing my beleaguered grandfather do battle with an increasing number of wily woodchucks who kept raiding his vegetable garden. My recollection is quite clear that after a few years my grandfather did indeed win the woodchuck war — mostly thanks to his keen ability with firearms.
When I moved to Putnam in 2011, I discovered a woodchuck living underneath a rockpile in the middle of the horse pasture behind our house. It had burrowed under the rocks and dug tunnels connecting two openings. On warm days, I would see it sunning on the rocks or rummaging through the field seeking sweet new grass. Now and then it would lift itself up on its hind legs and, with a mouth full of grass shoots, pause mid-chew to squint toward the horizon.
If I made a sound, it would run in a fast waddle to the rockpile burrow. The residency of our woodchuck lasted only a year or two. It moved on to greener pastures and, thankfully, never did discover our vegetable garden.
Woodchucks are common in The Last Green Valley and have a range throughout the Eastern United States into Canada and up into Alaska. They can be found in habitats that range from open woodlands, forest edges, farm pastures, meadows, suburban yards and gardens to grassy highway median strips. They are adaptable to living in our residential landscapes.
You see woodchucks primarily during warmer months and especially in late summer and early fall when their feeding increases with the need to put on a thick layer of fat. Woodchucks are “true hibernators” spending 4-5 months from late October to March asleep in their den. Like other true hibernators their heart, respiration and metabolism rates are greatly reduced, and they survive on their fat reserves.
By late October they have started their winter sleep in burrows below the frost line. They seal up the entrance hole with dirt and will dig themselves out when they rise from hibernation in March.
Woodchucks have a red-brown to black-brown fur with white hair mixed in. Their chunky appearance is perhaps the reason they are also called groundhogs. Woodchucks range from about 5-15 pounds. They have a bushy flat tail of only 3-6 inches in length. They have large incisors, or teeth, and renown digging ability aided by the long and curved claws on their feet.
Prodigious diggers, their burrows are several feet deep with tunnels up to 30 feet long. It was the fresh dirt tossed up next to the rockpile in our horse pasture that first told me we had a woodchuck living there. The entrance hole was about 10 inches in diameter, and I discovered the other less visible escape hole at the other side of the rockpile.
Underground would have been a nesting chamber and a separate “toilet” chamber for excrement. There may have also been a hibernation burrow dug well below the frost line or it may have had a second winter burrow in a more wooded area.
The woodchuck diet consists of green plants, including grass, dandelions and clover. My grandfather’s experience attests to their love of garden plants as well. He didn’t fence his garden. But, if you have a garden and there are woodchucks about, you may want to build a fence at least 3 feet tall. It is also suggested to bury the fence a foot underground to keep them from digging under the fence.
Woodchucks live solitary lives until breeding season. The male emerges first in early March and will venture out to find a receptive female. One litter is produced in April or early May. Woodchuck females have only one litter per year with 2-6 young kits. Blind and helpless at birth, the young woodchucks grow fast and within 5-6 weeks can be seen foraging outside the den. Soon, they will strike out on their own to seek their own den location.
Woodchucks will make a shrill whistling sound when danger is near, followed by what is described as at “tchuck, tchuck” sound. They have poor eyesight and rely on their excellent hearing and acute sense of smell to alert them to danger. They do not venture too far from their den when feeding. Their navigation back to the den is aided by a scent marking they leave with secretions from a gland located in their mouth. Despite their preference for retreat when danger is near they can be fierce fighters when cornered by predators. Animals that feed on woodchucks include coyote, foxes, bears, bobcat, mink, weasels and raptors such as hawks and owls.
It would be impossible to write about woodchucks and not tell the story of Groundhog Day. I did some research about this peculiar tradition of weather prediction and discovered some interesting facts I had not known before.
In America, it all started back in 1887 at Gobbler’s Knob. According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its hole on Feb. 2 and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather. If there is no shadow, it will be an early spring.
Groundhog Day’s roots are in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas Day, when clergy would distribute blessed candles for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. In Germany, the tradition changed to using a hedgehog to predict the length of winter. German settlers to Pennsylvania maintained the tradition, switching to the plentiful groundhogs of their new home.
In 1887, a group of hunters from Punxsutawney called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club declared Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, to be the country’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog. Other locales also have their own weather-predicting rodents, including Birmingham Bill, Staten Island Chuck and Connecticut Chuckles, who lives in Manchester. Right here in The Last Green Valley, however, we have a spring-predicting duck, Scramble. Scramble is under the care of Micah, 14, Isaac, 12, and 8-year-old Benjamin Torcellini, who hosted Duck Day in Eastford on Friday.
But, nothing has rivaled Phil. Each year in early February, tens of thousands of people converge on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney and bear witness to Phil’s Feb. 2 prediction. This simple tradition has turned into a multi-day celebration featuring entertainment, food, crafts and other Punxsutawney Phil-themed activities.
I have not looked up to see how accurate Punxsutawney Phil has been with forecasting the length of winter. Perhaps the weather-predicting accuracy of the most famous rodent in America is less important than the fun of the event. My guess is the tourism dollars generated are more important to the region than knowing if there will be six more weeks of winter weather. Family-friendly activities can be at a premium during the dreariness of winter, and a 130-year tradition clearly makes for a fun wintertime celebration.
Whether or not Phil sees his shadow, spring will be here before you know it. I hope you’ll join me in enjoying these last six weeks of winter in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.
Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 35 years and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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