2017-07-19 / Columns

IN THE WILD

by Dan Stiles Wildlife Biologist

Whistle Pigs

A few folks are familiar with the term whistle pig. Usually they must think about it for several moments, and then nod. For those that don’t recognize the name, the answer is that they are woodchucks or perhaps more commonly known around here as groundhogs, or perhaps land beavers. But, since I was a kid, I’ve known them as woodchuck, a name assigned them by Native Americans that sounded rather similar. These creatures have very little to do with wood, much less “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck …”.

My grandfather didn’t care a bit about having them living in his meadow or pasture, because cows and horses were known to break their legs by stepping into woodchuck burrows. I could understand that. Their burrows were about 12 inches in diameter with lots of excavated soil around their primary entrance. However, almost always, if you could find it, there was what we kids called a secret escape hatch nearby that was far more hazardous to livestock. So, I was encouraged to shoot woodchucks with my .22 rifle, and sometimes my Aunt Jane would roast one for dinner. (Not too bad as I recall, but greasy).

Woodchucks are interesting creatures. They are found all around the eastern part of the United States and southern Canada, all the way to Alaska. A big one weighs around 10 pounds, but with an abundance of food and, I would guess, without much exercise, they can weigh twice that. During the winter months, they hibernate in a special side tunnel that extends well below the frost line. (Everybody knows about Punxsutawney Phil). Their short, powerful legs with long toenails make them well suited for digging tunnels. And, I’ve seen them climb trees, apparently to have a better look around.

In the Spring, two to six hairless, blind youngsters are born in their den. It’s awful to think about, but they are easy prey for the many black rat snakes we have around. In the Fall, the males of the new litter scatter from the den where they were born, and venture forth to dig a burrow of their own. Female youngsters tend to stay until their mother produces another litter next Spring. Abandoned woodchuck burrows provide excellent readymade homes for cottontail rabbits, foxes, skunks and, I would suspect, overwintering snakes. They are most active in the morning and again in the late afternoon, feeding almost continuously. They live two or three years, and lucky ones may live twice that long. Men with rifles, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and dogs are their main predators. Some woodchucks are infected with a hepatitis virus that produces a deadly liver cancer.

My barn has a dirt floor. A woodchuck apparently found it a wonderful place to burrow into the soil and raise a family. The soil is dry, no problem with cold winds, and it never rains nor snows in there. This year a huge female produced a litter of four there, and all five have begun to venture into the field of grass around the barn. You can see the several trails leading away from the barn where woodchucks have “mowed” the grass. They seem far more comfortable eating their way through tall grass, but occasionally I run the lawnmower over their favorite feeding area, and they are noticeably absent for several days.

Anyway, a few days ago, three times in rapid succession, I heard the high-pitched, surprisingly loud and penetrating screech of an alarmed woodchuck. She was on the opposite side of the cabin, so I was not what had set off her alarm (so-called) whistle. I’ll never know for sure, but I bet it was one of my neighborhood black rat snakes.

No need to worry about woodchucks. There are far more of them now then there were 500 years ago, probably because they thrive in man-made meadows, pastures, open fields and, I suppose, barns with dirt floors.

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