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Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Woodchuck Spring

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., March 18, 2006.)
As the sun warmed the earth, pulling the new plants
toward itself, Josie became an eating machine.
A strong body was vital to nourish the young
inside her, and she gained the strength she would
need for the challenges ahead.
“The wildlife around one becomes interesting the moment one gets into the current of it and sees its characteristics and by-play…. the woodchucks burrowing in my meadows and eating and tangling my clover, and showing sudden terror when they spy me peeping over the stone wall or coming with my rifle.” (John Burroughs, in Vol.20, Field and Study, "New Gleanings in Old Fields," 1919.)
# # # #
On February 2, Pennsylvania's celebrity groundhog predicted that spring would arrive in six weeks. Despite our weather, for the groundhog spring is now here. Today we look into what a typical pair is doing. I'll call them Josie and Bucky.

Josie crawled out of her den in mid-March to a cool breeze and the shuffling sounds of a suitor. Bucky was sniffing around her winter den with romance on his mind.

Bucky was a five-year-old, and had sired many woodchuck pups in the previous three summers. For 2 weeks, he had been making brief visits to the dens of females, hoping to find the interesting scent that indicated a readiness to breed. Several times, Bucky encountered competing suitors, which led to viscous fights. Scarred, but undaunted, the patient old buck knew instinctively that he should persist.

Josie had other things on her mind. Groggy from almost 5 months of sleep, it would be a few days before she would adapt once again to life among the living. Her body was stiff, her mind foggy, and she lacked the keen vision that would be the key to her survival later in the summer. Besides the need to restart her bodily systems, she had some housekeeping to do. Until she was fully alive, she ignored Bucky's attention.

The breeze felt good, and held the promise of days when she would lie atop her mound of dirt and soak up the sun. Soon, Josie acclimated to the light, the wind, and the sounds and scents that arrive on the spring breezes.

Her first summer had been an education in survival. In her second she had produced a litter of four. Bad luck took all but one. Now she was a healthy adult, in her prime and ready to raise her second litter, teaching her pups to survive the way she had been taught.

She nibbled on brown grass stubble, happening onto a few tender new sprouts of clover. Despite her empty stomach, she wasn’t hungry enough to gorge herself, and wouldn’t find enough to satisfy hunger for several days anyway. A few minutes passed. Josie sat up on her rump, steadied herself with her strong tail, and surveyed the field rising above her den.

Then, back into the burrow she went, heading for the excrement chamber, a side tunnel typical of every woodchuck den. After relieving herself of winter’s waste, she ambled back to the surface. Bucky was there and Josie charged him, unready and unwilling to tolerate his advances. She gave chase for 20 yards.

That evening, Bucky was back, but kept his distance. He watched Josie and circled while she ignored him. A day later, he wandered off in search of a friendlier companion. Soon a younger male waddled along the field edge, inspecting every burrow he passed. When he reached Josie’s tunnel, he caught an inviting smell and cautiously entered.

Snarling and snapping her teeth, Josie repelled his advances. Her aggression left no uncertainty and he skulked away.

Early the next morning Bucky’s nose led him again to the mouth of Josie’s den again. This time, Josie tolerated his overture. Then he was gone.

As the sun warmed the earth, pulling the new plants toward itself, Josie became an eating machine. A strong body was vital to nourish the young inside her, and she gained the strength she would need for the challenges ahead.

Josie's den was under a big white oak at the edge of an old graveyard bordering a clover field. The den was well suited to the needs of the mother-to-be. Inside it her young would be safely ushered into a dangerous world, and around it they would learn what they need to know to continue their species.

During 30 days of gestation, Josie nosed around old tombstones, explored the edges of the field, and instinctively practiced the safety lessons delivered by her own mother. Neighbor woodchucks could see her from hundreds of yards away. Whitetail does, heavy with fawns, stared at her. Mice scurried by, diligent to prepare their own nests.

Predators noticed everything. Red tailed hawks surveyed the acres around Josie's den from high in the air. Robins and starlings preyed on insects coming to life in the greening grasses. An occasional coyote prowled, looking for an easy meal. Josie’s eyes became keener every day. Somehow she understood who was friend and who was foe. (Coming soon… "A Woodchuck Summer.")


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