Ames Free Library

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A Glimpse of Nature - Another Surprise

On a quiet June afternoon, I was scouting the grounds to see what might be seen and, truth be told, hoping to get another look at the painted turtle . . . or any turtle, for that matter. I didn’t. It was about about six o’clock when I circled back towards the pergola, close to the bocce court, when some movement caught my attention. Beyond the pergola near the back end of the garden, a brown animal ran across the grass towards a dense thicket. The cottontail often grazes at this time of day, in the open but with an escape route nearby. Yet, something didn’t look rabbit-like in this movement. I aimed my camera, zoomed, and saw this mammal instead.

   

June 17, 2022, Queset Garden

Woodchucks are not rare in Massachusetts, but this was the first one that I’ve seen during my many walks near Queset Garden.  It was startled and didn’t linger. Although my observation was fleeting, it illustrates several aspects of woodchuck anatomy and behavior. This is a medium-sized, stocky animal with brown fur and short legs. It is a member of the squirrel family that sticks close to the ground.

     

June 17, 2022, Queset Garden

Then, there’s habitat. Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are an edge species: they live in fields and forest edges, in grassy areas along highways, and sometimes in backyards. This choice is partially based on their diet of herbaceous plants, grasses, fruit, garden vegetables and flowers, along with some bark and seeds.  Alfalfa and clover are said to be favorites, and so it seems.  Look at this individual grazing in a flowery meadow.

   

June 20, 2022, Pembroke

Just like the library’s woodchuck, this animal was feeding late in the day, around 5:30 p.m. In warm weather, woodchucks are most active in the morning and the late afternoon. They bask or sleep at midday . . . and sleep some more at night.

The choice of habitat is also connected to safety. As burrowing animals, woodchucks need soils they can dig through, tunnels near their food sources, clear views of nearby danger, and rapid escape routes. This is easier to achieve in meadows. Most New Englanders know that groundhogs burrow. Indeed, some gardeners know this all too well! Still, the details of their underground lives are impressive. Their burrows are two to six feet deep and, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, can be up to 50 feet long with many entrances and side passages. Their short, powerful  legs make fine “shovels,” and prominent incisors help clear obstacles like roots. Creating one tunnel system of this size would be a remarkable accomplishment, but a woodchuck can dig several, albeit simpler, burrows. In Behavior of North American Mammals, ecologist Mark Elbroch states that “In Connecticut, woodchucks use 8 different burrows on average, rotating between them every 4 to 6 days.”

These burrow networks serve multiple functions: bedroom, latrine, safe shelter, nest for young, and hibernaculum.  Woodchucks are true hibernators who spend several months below ground in a state of deep torpor. The transition is truly amazing.  Here’s a description from Mass Audubon’s factsheet “About Woodchucks": ”While hibernating, a woodchuck’s body temperature drops from 99°F to 40°F, and its heartbeat drops from 100 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute!” To prepare for this long period without nourishment, woodchucks put on significant weight in the fall.

One reason I may not have noticed the library’s woodchuck sooner is that these animals spend a lot of time underground – hibernating, sleeping, and nesting. The young, which are born in April to mid-May in our area, live underground for their first month. The species’ wariness also comes into play.  Adult woodchucks feed near their burrow entrance, always ready to dash to safety. During both of my observations this spring, I kept a good distance. Neither animal “whistled” an alarm call in reaction to my presence, though I have reason to believe that both were nesting.

The Pembroke individual kept looking in the direction of some logs that were nearby. From what I’ve read, woodchucks often use roots, rocks, and small buildings to support their burrows. Perhaps this creature’s burrow entrance was near the logs. Its raised tail probably reflects some alarm. I’m also intrigued by the grassy nest on the ground to the right of the woodchuck, but this image is straining the limits of my camera.

   

We should also note that both of “my” woodchucks were alone, which is typical of this solitary species. Some marmots live in colonies, but our eastern woodchucks keep to themselves except for mating and raising young.

Remember my false conclusion about “the rabbit”?  The experience of seeing that first woodchuck at Queset Garden got me wondering. Several days earlier, during my “Wings” nature walk, I spotted a small animal dashing into that same brushy area. When I speculated out loud that the creature was too big for a vole and too small for a rabbit, a young boy in the group suggested “a baby rabbit.” Maybe. Then again, a baby woodchuck could be another possibility. By mid-June, woodchuck babies could be out of the nest and weaned. Given that rabbits, skunks, and raccoons all use abandoned woodchuck burrows, we might have several sets of babies growing up in the back garden. In future walks, I’ll need to keep my eyes peeled for entrance holes!

   

 




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