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Saturday, August 19, 2006

A Woodchuck Summer -- Part 2

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., August 19, 2006.) "A Woodchuck Summer, Part 2" follows "A Woodchuck Summer, Part 1," published on August 5, 2006.
Lady luck, Eve’s constant companion and
benefactor, gave her many opportunities
to live until the days when she would
get by on her own survival skills.
As the midday sun grew hot the woodchucks limited their feeding forays to mornings and evenings, satisfying their ravenous appetites on clover, alfalfa, trefoil, dandelions, and other vegetarian delights.

As quickly as the rains dissolved the nutrients in the soil, the roots pulled nourishment up into the plants. Sun-driven photosynthesis pushed the grasses to heights tall enough to afford more protection to Josie and her remaining chucks. While a woman came by occasionally to mow the small, desolate cemetery nearby, the hayfield grew with abandon and so did Josie’s pups. The den was crowded, even more after the demise of Jake and Woody, because the quartet that remained were the size of small adults by the time July arrived.

The cemetery was a magnet for wildlife. Deer used its edges for an evening staging area before coming out of the trees. Doves, robins, grackles and other ground-feeding birds found abundant crickets and earthworms in the short grass. Skunks mined the turf for grubs, and squirrels perched on the tombstones, chattering at every interruption.

Jane led Suzy on ventures away from the den, but the cemetery was too uncomfortable, too risky for Suzy. The tombstones seemed like protection for Jane, but Suzy saw them as hiding places for predators. Jane wandered beyond the ancient markers, often arriving at the roadway. Suzy never ventured more than a few feet into the graveyard.

Although the first few cars that whizzed by frightened Jane, she gradually became accustomed to them. They never veered from the hard surface and merely caused a cooling wind -- a pleasant but brief reprieve from the summer heat. One day Jane noticed a healthy tuft of coltsfoot along the berm on the opposite side of the road. She never saw the truck coming. She was dead before the air currents were stilled.

By mid-summer, many woodchucks leave the birthing den and set out for independence, so Jane’s absence was not unusual. Suzie was the only one to truly miss her. Several times she went to the cemetery to look for Jane, expecting to find her brave sister contentedly grazing.

On July 3, excitement and fear ruled the day. Distant rumbling, more constant than thunder, forecasted a change to the woodchucks’ way of life. It became louder until it arrived beside the great old oak that sheltered Josie’s den. In a moment, it would severe all the grass and lay it on the ground. The barren earth brought insecurity to the woodchucks. They stayed deep in their burrows most of the time, venturing out only briefly to refresh themselves with the dew on the stubble.

As the mower approached, Eve sat up near the spy hole of the den to see what the mysterious racket was. The blade scraped the dirt around the main entrance and the farmer lifted the cutting bar to clear the mound. He lowered it cautiously to avoid damage. As Eve dove for safety, the blade clipped most of her tail.

That wasn’t the only close shave Eve had experienced. A few days after Woody’s tragedy, the coyote was back for seconds. He surprised her by lying in wait at the mouth of the den. When she came out, he dashed at her. Not expecting her to stop, he overran her, giving her the chance to reverse direction under his legs and dive back into the den. Once, in early June, the farmer’s 13 year old son fired a .22 at her from the edge of the woods. The bullet hit the dirt in front of her nose, dusting her and throwing dirt into her eyes.

Lady luck was Eve’s constant companion and benefactor, and gave her many opportunities to live until the days when she would get by on her own survival skills.

Mark was not so lucky. He was a sitter, spending much of his time sitting up, surveying the landscape. He was the kind of target woodchuck hunters want, because a vertical target forgives errors in range estimation.

As Mark sat one day, hundreds of yards away two marksmen with flat-shooting rifles watched him through binoculars. Mark was unaware that danger could threaten from so far away. He slumped and was gone, never even hearing the shot. The bullet was quick and humane. Of the seven woodchucks born to Josie, Eve and Suzie were all that was left to provide seed for future generations.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Woodchuck Summer -- Part 1

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., August 5, 2006.) "A Woodchuck Summer" follows "A Woodchuck Spring," published on March 18, 2006.
Josie stood up and gave a shrill
whistle, tapering off in a descending
staccato. It was an emergency drill.
Next time it will mean life, or death.
When the time came for Josie's little family to arrive, she brought forth 7 squirming, hairless babies in mid-April in an underground nest she had prepared. There, Josie contentedly allowed them to suckle whenever she wasn't feeding herself. One unfortunate little one, weaker than the rest, was crowded out and he succumbed quickly -- the first fatality of her little band. Without emotion, she moved him to her den's excrement chamber and returned to tend the remaining six.

Between feedings, Josie ventured above ground, eating the succulent greens that form the principle part of the woodchuck diet. By mid-May, the little rodents looked like miniature adults, but leaner and with softer hair. Each one was developing a unique disposition, one that would soon be an asset or a liability.

Josie led her babies out into the bright world above ground, a world of intense competition. She knew the dangers that lurked outside, having escaped many in her two previous years. Maternal instincts combined with the lessons of experience had equipped her to give her young the best chance at life.

A few minutes out of the hole, Josie stood up and gave a shrill whistle, tapering off in a descending staccato. Her brood responded immediately, racing to her side. She ran for the hole, stopping so that each of the six would beat her inside. It was an emergency drill. Next time it will mean life, or death.

As days passed Josie’s brood played with one another, strengthening their survival skills. They added size, balance, intelligence and coordination. Their personalities became more defined. Of the young bucks, Jake was the biggest, and had confidence in his ability to dominate. Woody was a risk-taker, with the habit of straying farthest from the safety of the den. Mark was curious, and always the last one into the den.

The does were less competitive than the bucks. Jane was a loner and a wanderer. Suzy was cautious, always the closest to Josie. Eve was tough, smart, and a quick study in the lessons of experience.

Young animals face many dangers at this time of the year, and mortality is high in nature. Inside a local coyote den, a mother nursed her litter while their father hunted. The pressure to feed his mate was strong. Birds and animals alike were tending to the task of nurturing the lives they had borne. While some grew and thrived, others no less deserving suffered violent deaths.

The first few weeks of May brought life and death dramas on every scale. Josie’s little band of youngsters was not immune. A big male coyote made regular hunting excursions around the edges of the local fields, knowing that many prey animals inhabited those edges. Each morning, just after daylight was a particularly dangerous time in Josie’s neighborhood. Usually, the coyote caught mice in the short grass, eating more than his fill and returning to his companion’s side to share a partially digested breakfast.

Early summer grasses, seasoned with heavy morning dew, were especially tender and succulent. Josie's young were out to enjoy the treats. Woody, the risk-taker, strayed 30 yards from the burrow entrance. By the time Josie saw the coyote approaching it was too late. She gave her shrill whistle, extra sharp and extra loud in this real emergency. All the woodchuck cubs dashed for the burrow. All but Woody.

A woodchuck is slow, especially a young one, and no match for a coyote's speed. Woody was quickly caught and shaken, and his tender back snapped. His young life was gone, sacrificed so that the next link on the food chain would live.

Josie peered out from her spy hole, a hidden opening to the den that she had excavated from the inside. She watched the coyote carry Woody away, heading toward the rocky wooded hillside above the fields. Now five were left to face other dangers they knew nothing about.

After a particularly quiet stretch of days, the local farm dog was on the prowl. The big black Lab was a good woodchuck hunter. He pleased the farmer by killing over a dozen each summer. Spying the curve of Jake’s round back in the short grass, he began a stalk. Even though Jake saw the dog before hearing his mother’s whistle, he hesitated, giving the Lab time to block the path to safety. Death didn’t come quickly to Jake. The Lab bit him, tossed him, pounced on him, and carried his prize back to the farmhouse while life ebbed away.