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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.


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