Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Woodchuck or Groundhog? Whistlepig or Landbeaver?

Yellow crocuses in the snow
Marmota monax, one of  a group of large, ground squirrels

     When my children were young, they rode a bus to school. My son, as the oldest, was the first to venture up the long driveway to wait alone for the yellow bus. He seemed so small and vulnerable; it was excruciating for me to send him off. I knew though, that for him to learn self sufficiency and confidence, I had to let him go. I did ask if he wanted me to wait with him, hoping he would say yes. "No, Mom. None of the other kids' moms wait with them." I didn't think he was so sure, but I let him go. Secretly every morning, I watched from the house as he toddled up the drive and until he was safely on the school bus.
     Eventually, I became more relaxed with his separation from me and growing independence. I stopped waiting to see him climb the steps into the bus. I made myself busy in the kitchen until in the back of my mind I registered the rumble of the bus engine leaving with him safely inside. But one morning, though he went to wait at the head of the drive, my son didn't get on the bus. Instead, he came flying back to the house, running as fast as his kindergarten legs would carry him. Wide-eyed and pale as a sheet, he burst into the kitchen. "Mom! Mom! Help! " He was scared to death. "There's a rat, a huge rat up there staring right at me!" I calmed him down. My own fear abated because a rat was ridiculous. "Oh, honey, there can't be a rat. Do you want me to go back up with you?" This time, he said yes.
     When we walked back up the driveway together, I could feel his heart still pounding through his fat, little hand. He said nothing, though I was babbling away trying to dispel his anxiety and my own. I hate rats. I have major rat issues, in fact. Long ago, I saw a movie where a cage of rats was held to a man's face to get him to reveal State secrets. The image has stayed with me for decades. That's all it would take to make me spill everything anyone wanted to know. Nonetheless, I was sure there couldn't be a rat. "But Mom," he said, "It was looking right at me and wouldn't leave."
     And sure enough, there it was! Under an enormous White pine tree, where the giant roots dove into the ground, was a colossal woodchuck, sitting still as if frozen. It glared at us. Because the drive rose up a knoll at the end, the woodchuck was at eye level. I told my son that the daunting thirty pound rodent was a woodchuck and it wouldn't hurt him. "It's an herbivore," I explained. I told him that the woodchuck wasn't staring at him, but rather was afraid of him.
     Coyotes, bobcats, owls, eagles and farmers are among the predators of woodchucks. They freeze in place when they sense a predator so as to evade attack. A nearly motionless "Whistle-pig" alert to danger, will stand erect on its hind feet then whistle when alarmed to warn other groundhogs. Outside their burrow, individuals are alert when not actively feeding. Also called "Land-beavers," groundhogs may squeal when fighting, seriously injured, or caught by an enemy. They also make a low bark and a sound produced by grinding their teeth.
     Believing woodchucks to cause major damage to agricultural crops, farmers shoot them and gas their burrows. Woodchucks dig enormous burrows where they sleep and raise their young. They dig a second burrow for winter hibernation moving an average 700 pounds of earth in the process. A burrow may run five feet deep under the ground and has four to five entrances for escape from predators. The burrows can be dangerous and destructive when farm equipment falls into them or they are dug under foundations.
     Despite their heavy-bodied appearance, groundhogs are good swimmers and excellent tree climbers when escaping predators or when they want to survey their surroundings. But, they would rather retreat to their burrows when threatened; if the burrow is invaded, the groundhog tenaciously defends itself with its two big incisors and front claws. Groundhogs fight with each other to establish territory dominance and can be very aggressive.
     The lowly woodchuck is used in cancer research, too. When infected with Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus they are at 100% risk for developing liver cancer, making them a good model for testing Hepatitis B and liver cancer therapies in humans. In Ohio, the digging of woodchucks has exposed archaeological artifacts at the otherwise un-excavated Ufferman Site.
     "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" None. The burrowing rodent, a member of the marmot family, doesn't eat wood. It's short, curved legs and claws are made for digging, not throwing or chucking. The name "woodchuck" comes from the Algonquin "wuchak." Though the 3,000 year old Native American language is dying out for not being spoken anymore, we still use Algonquin words for many of our flora and fauna. When you say woodchuck, chipmunk, caribou, hickory, squash, hominy, moose, opossum, and raccoon, you keep Algonquin alive.
     The name "groundhog" goes back at least as far as 1742. It may have been a translation from the Dutch aardvarken, meaning "earth pig," or it may simply have been inspired by the observation that this pudgy rodent burrows in the ground. No matter what you call him, the woodchuck is the only rodent with its own day - "Groundhog Day" on February second. On coming out of his burrow, if the woodchuck sees his shadow, he retreats back to the burrow where he stays for six more weeks until he thinks the weather will turn fair. If he doesn't see his shadow, he stays out of his hole expecting that momentarily, it will be spring.
     This February 2nd, the woodchuck did not see his shadow, because the sun isn't shining anywhere in the United States. We've been enduring one of the harshest winters on record. The Whistlepig popped from his hole into the face of a history making snow storm. Though his alleged prediction is that we'll only suffer a few more weeks of winter, that doesn't seem likely when looking out the window. To believe that one day soon the sun will shine and the flowers will bloom is a leap of great faith, like crocuses through the snow or putting a little boy on a bus.

Thanks to the following for some of the information:


  1. Great to see some colour peeping through the snow and thanks for sharing this tale.
    Happy Groundhog Day.

  2. Thank you, Frank!What else can I do while waiting for the snow to stop?

  3. Thanks! Most of your info was new to me and you have a real knack for hanging it onto a good tale.

  4. Hilke, thank you. I do love to tell a story and throw in a few factoids while I'm at it. My son still tells about that groundhog, too.

  5. Great seeing the flowers!! Spring is a long way off for us. Boom & Gary of the Vermilon River, Canada.

  6. Roberta Lane commented on your link.
    Roberta wrote: "Wonderful post!"

  7. Thank you, Gary and Roberta. There's so much snow now that if the crocuses come up, we'll never see them under there. Bummer!

  8. Great reading on a day like this!

  9. nice article. Take some pictures of the snow around your house.
    Sun is shining in DC!

  10. Robin - The yellow crocus are a glorious sight for winter weary eyes. Loved this blog and the last sentence especially......what nature lover and parent could not relate?

  11. I so much enjoyed your groundhog story...very entertaining! If I was still teaching second grade it would have been perfect to share during our Groundhog Day festivities.

  12. Stacie Hatcher Hanes commented on your note "Woodchuck or Groundhog? Whistlepig or Landbeaver?".
    Stacie wrote: "Great essay Robin! Very interesting. I like groundhogs and it makes me sad they are used in cancer research, even though its necessary. Hang in there- winter is almost over!"

  13. I think the Groundhog not seeing his shadow won't make a difference for us at this latitude! We have so much snow on the ground, with temps so cold- it seems it won't melt until May or even June! If temps even went as high as 40- I'd feel it was a major heat wave! Despite going to work- I have cabin fever BAD!!!! How's the roof shoveling going for ya? I'm sure you'll be the first to purchase a snowblower next season!!!!
    This was a cute story! Ms. Boo

  14. Robin I just reread your post (for the 3rd time) I loved it. How I remember walking hand in hand with my son trying to explain and dispel his fears. That was a time when I was the all knowing. It goes way too quickly. Ah, to step back in time. Thank you for the pleasant memories

  15. Kaky Hughes commented on your note "Woodchuck or Groundhog? Whistlepig or Landbeaver?".
    Kaky wrote: "My FAVORITE Winter FLower Photo..........."

  16. That brought back memories of mixed emotions as I watched my own young children head out to school.

    Great Groundhog image!!

  17. I've been pleased that this story (all true) about my son, now a grown man, has been so moving ot so many. I didn't realize when I wrote it that it would have that kind of impact, honestly. Thank you, Harold, Vicki and Annie for that. And Annie - over the top thank you for loving enough to read it 3x! Wow! As a writer, that and to have another say that the story would have been a teaching moment for youngsters (thank you HG!) could not be richer.

  18. Cute story about your son, and as always, a wonderfully informative, well-written post. Thank you for that!!

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