Outdoors by Rick Brockway: A winter woodchuck

A little over a week ago that famous, little rodent Punxsutawney Phil was awaken and dragged from his sleep by some strange looking fellows in tall hats. On Groundhog Day he didn’t see his shadow, indicating that winter was on the downward slide and spring was just around the corner.

Well folks, Phil isn’t a meteorologist so don’t put any credence in his forecast. It’s all for fun and the continuation of some bit of folklore. But more times than not, Phil has been right. He and the woolly bears seem to be right this year.

I don’t have to go all the way to some little corner of Pennsylvania to find out about the weather. I have my own resident woodchuck and he’s been out running around for more than a week.

In the back of my commercial building there’s a small body shop. Last week I took some mail out to Billy. He told me that he and his buddy had seen a woodchuck out by our barn the day before.

I was a little skeptical, seeing that about six inches of snow still blanketed the ground. Then over the weekend I drove into the yard and a woodchuck was on the front porch of that building. He scampered behind a bucket that holds grit for the driveway. I watched him as he peaked around the white, five gallon pail. I didn’t disturb him and went into the house.

Since then I’ve seen his tracks in the snow. He goes along the side of the barn and over to the deck on the back of the house.

Yesterday when I got home from Cooperstown, he scampered off from under the deck and disappeared under the Amish building in the back yard. He was probably eating on some greenish, almost frozen grass that was still there under the protection of the pressure treated boards overhead.

Today Chuck, that’s what I call him, had left more tracks around the yard. So why would he be out when there’s snow most everywhere? Woodchucks hibernate, don’t they?

Woodchucks, groundhogs, whistle pigs or whatever you want to call them are included in a group of large land squirrels known as marmots. Maybe being related to squirrels is why several times over the years I have seen then up in trees. When I did, they were eating apples.

Woodchuck, the common name around these parts, has nothing to do with wood or chucking. In fact, woodchucks don’t chuck wood. The word woodchuck actually comes from the Algonquin word wuchak. They dig burrows in the ground emerging in the spring and normally disappearing in the fall.

Chuck is rather small compared to many of the groundhogs I’ve seen over the years. Maybe he has come out of his den because he’s hungry. Heck, how would I know, but I have seen some tracks up under the old apple tree, but they were never fresh enough to tell what they were.

Come spring there will be lots of woodchucks around. They dig holes on the bank behind the house as well as out in the meadows. They have been warned that they were safe as long as they don’t dig in the lawns that I mow.

Woodchucks don’t usually range very far from their dens. During the summer I often see them in the meadow sitting up on their hind feet.

When alarmed by danger, they give out a high-pitched whistle. The main predator of the woodchuck is the coyote. A few years ago I watched one lying near a woodchuck’s den waiting for the chuck to emerge. He lay perfectly still, stretched out flat on the ground and waited. When the rodent came out of his den, there was a quick pounce, and the chuck became dinner for the coyote’s pups.

My friend Chuck has no one to bother him. He can come and go as he pleases. I shook a few frozen apples that still clung to the old apple tree today to help him through until spring. Chuck didn’t see his shadow either. He says there’s only five weeks left of winter.

Rick Brockway is the Daily Star’s outdoors columnist and can be reached at robrockway@hotmail.com.

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