Natural Wonders

A Rite of Spring

by Mike Roberts, Contributing Columnist

 

Although gardeners and farmers detest them, woodchucks are the only wild creatures recognized by a distinctive calendar date, and with much ado!

By the end of January most of us are ready for spring, especially when cold winds continue to howl and snow blankets the landscape. While enduring these physical and mental discomforts, our hope for seasonal change hinges upon the ticking biological clock of a fat little creature that sleeps away the toughest parts of winter. If, on Feb. 2, the groundhog awakes from hibernation and does not see its shadow, Old Man Winter is soon to release his icy grip on the Great Outdoors. More often than not, however, the mammalian weather prophet’s shadow frightens the animal back into its den for six additional weeks of wintry conditions. This celebrated legend dates back to Colonial America and European tradition. Ironically, even with all the fame and glory, most people know very little about this common, backyard animal.

The woodchuck, or groundhog, (Marmota monax) belongs to the order of mammals called rodentia, or in layman’s terms – the rodents, which in Virginia range from less than an ounce in weight (white-footed mouse) to over 70 pounds (North American beaver). The common denominator for rodents, whether large or small, is their behavioral need to gnaw. All rodents have a pair of sharp incisors on both the upper and lower jaws that grow as long as the animal lives. Eating food and gnawing on inanimate objects, such as rocks, wood, and deer antlers, help wear down incisor length. Occasionally, through misalignment (malocclusion) or failure to gnaw regularly, the incisors continue to grow until the animal cannot eat or the skull is penetrated. Either way, the outcome results in a slow and agonizing death.

Averaging about 2 feet in body length and typically weighing less than 12 pounds, the woodchuck is a prey species hunted primarily by coyotes, foxes, domestic dogs, red-tailed hawks and great-horned owls. Groundhogs regularly sit upright on their haunches to better utilize peripheral vision that is designed to detect motion. When alarmed by a predator, these sharp-eyed creatures communicate the danger to others of their own kind with a loud, sharp whistle, giving origin to the colloquial name “whistle pig.”   

Perhaps the one habit that gets woodchucks in more trouble than any other is excavating holes in hayfields and pastures, which can cause injury to livestock and damage to farming equipment. Nevertheless, digging is what groundhogs do best. Their burrows are usually located on well-drained hillsides near rock piles, trees and buildings that afford added protection from the relentless onslaught of predators. Regardless of whether they reside in an old or new den, woodchucks constantly renovate their living quarters. Occupied dens are easy to identify because of fresh dirt piled high at the entrance. This elevated platform provides an area essential to basking in the sun and observing the surrounding area for potential threats.

The den consists of a primary entrance and a long, main tunnel leading to a series of individual chambers. Besides the highly visible main entrance, the burrow usually has two or more concealed entrances that can be utilized in case of an emergency. If predator pressure becomes too intense, woodchucks are quick to relocate, either renovating an abandoned den or digging a new one. These solitary rodents do not share den sites.   

When it comes to food, woodchucks are recognized as true herbivores. Having flat molars designed to grind rather than tear, they only eat plant material. Just about any vegetation containing chlorophyll is palatable. Above and beyond the wide variety of grasses and weeds consumed, woodchucks relish garden vegetables, alfalfa, clover, soy beans, and corn, often to the point of being quite destructive. For this reason many farmers allow hunting access to sportsmen seeking permission to polish their summertime shooting skills. Primarily ground dwellers, woodchucks regularly climb fruit trees to feed on apples, peaches, pears, and cherries.

Woodchucks can be destructive, but let’s give credit where credit’s due – abandoned woodchuck dens are beneficial to other species of wildlife, especially cottontails, during periods of cold weather. Red and gray foxes frequently modify the vacant holes to raise their own families. Raccoons, opossums, and skunks often seek refuge in deserted groundhog dens as well.

With the approach of autumn, woodchucks begin gorging themselves to pack on additional fat needed to survive winter hibernation. Depending on temperatures and food availability, they sometimes remain active until late November. When outside conditions necessitate action, groundhogs retire to a selected chamber in the den and curl up for most of the winter. As with all true hibernators, the animal’s body temperature drops substantially and metabolism all but ceases.

Woodchucks awaken from their slumber sometime during February or March. This time of the year food is practically nonexistent, but previously stored body fat serves to maintain the animals until springtime plants begin to grow. Males are the first to appear, traveling from den to den looking for potential mates. Whenever these ill-tempered suitors cross paths violent fights erupt over the annual breeding rights. Nasty dispositions and sharp incisors often make for bloody confrontations, battle scars and torn ears. After initial breeding the polygamous males continue to search for receptive females.

The gestation period is approximately one month, with the average litter of four babies being precocial at birth (blind and hairless). At about three weeks of age the fully furred and opened-eyed chucks begin to explore the area around the den entrance. From the time they first emerge these fuzzy little fellows begin nibbling on plants. By the end of the summer the fast-growing youngsters are on their own to establish individual homes. Like most prey species, the majority of the offspring will succumb to predation within the first six months of life.

Now that we know more about this cuddly little critter, the question remains, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” I’ll never tell!

Wild Bird Profile: Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)

Few things have inspired more artists, poets, and writers than the V-formations and resonating calls of migrating Canada geese. Perhaps Aldo Leopold, in his timeless book, A Sand County Almanac, best described the instinctive intelligence of these geese by declaring that songbirds predicting spring in error can reverse such predictions through silence and hibernating animals that wake too early have opportunity to return to their chambers. The Canada goose, however, winging its way northward, has much more at stake – making its appearance a true harbinger of spring!

While in most of North America’s waterfowl flyways Canada geese continue to migrate seasonally as they have for thousands and thousands of years, the vast majority of those in the Atlantic passage are no longer members of the frequent-flyer club. Gone are the days when countless skeins passed high over Virginia on their way to and from North Carolina ’s Currituck Sound. For whatever environmentally related reason, several generations of these big birds opted for permanent residency instead of returning to their summer breeding grounds in far northern latitudes. Now, because of population increase and damage to winter grain crops and golf course greens, plus the invasion of urban lakes and ponds, the popularity of the Canada goose has diminished greatly.  

Throughout Virginia , resident Canada geese begin breeding activity during March. The nest, constructed of grasses and lined with down feathers from the female’s body, is almost always located near water. The five to six large, cream-colored eggs are incubated by the female, under watchful eye of the gander, for approximately 28 days.

 

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