Creature comforts

Woodchuck (Arctomys monax) illustrated by John Woodhouse Audubon.

This tongue twister, written by Robert Davis for a musical “The Runaways,” dates back to 1902: “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” It’s documented as folklore.

The woodchuck, groundhog or whistle pig is part of the family of rodents, large ground squirrels known as marmots. The name whistle pig comes from the creature’s danger signal to intruders in its territory. This loud call sends any of the clan scurrying into one of the many entrances. 

Usually a bit of a loner, the one by my house seems to have little family and no friends. This fat but surprisingly fast creature keeps an eye out for danger. It dives for cover whenever it spies any movement.

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This guy appears to have a condo under my garage and a cottage under my shed. He has done a great job of removing all the flower heads from the marigolds planted along my back wall. His excavating skills has created a growing pile in the pathway to the garage. He eats grass, but not quite enough so I can skip mowing.

Woodchucks do not chuck wood, but they certainly dig dirt. State wildlife expert Richard Thomas found that a woodchuck could (and does) chuck around 35 cubic feet of dirt in the course of digging a burrow. If a woodchuck could chuck wood, Thomas estimated, it would chuck an amount equivalent to the weight of the dirt, or 700 pounds, which is a big pile.

I fear that one day my garage may sink into his abyss.

The woodchuck has been predicting spring’s arrival in many parts of the country. The most famous is Punxsutawney Phil, touted to be 131 years old.  His alleged long life has been attributed to his drinking “groundhog punch,” a secret elixir concocted by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

Although Phiol has been accurate only 39 percent of the time, the ceremony surrounding the February 2 event is a huge and well-attended event.  If he sees his shadow, then we are doomed to six more weeks of winter.

These creature happenings often bring unfortunate results to groundhog handlers. Staten Island Chuck bit New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009. In Wisconsin the mayor of Sun Prairie got bitten on the ear after the local weather predictor decided that he did not want a selfie with this politician. In Marian, Ohio, Buckeye Chuck is accurate 75 percent of the time. Shubenacadie Sam emerged from his den in Nova Scotia and bit a reporter, who needed to go to the doctor.  Sam predicted six more weeks of winter, while it took eight weeks for the reporter to heal.

I did not check with my chuck. I have no idea whether he might have checked out his shadow. Perhaps the sun didn’t offer his silhouette when he emerged from under the garage. I will make a better effort next year.

Being without a dog for the first time in many years, I may just invite more creatures to my yard.  I have noticed an influx of chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, turkeys and coyotes. I have recently spotted a surprise fisher, the first I have seen in the wild, and of course the usual deer and occasional bear so fond of my garbage.

On the other hand, it may be time to add a canine to my clan.

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