Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by Anna Botsford Comstock
 
Handbook of Nature Study: Mammals by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Woodchuck

Teacher's Story

dropcap image E who knows the ways of the woodchuck can readily guess where it is likely to be found; it loves meadows and pastures where grass or clover lushly grows. It is also fond of garden truck and has a special delectation for melons. The burrow is likely to be situated near a fence or stone heap, which gives easy access to the chosen food. The woodchuck makes its burrow by digging the earth loose with its front feet, and pushing it backward and out of the entrance with the hind feet. This method leaves the soil in a heap near the entrance, from which paths radiate into the grass in all directions. If one undertakes to dig out a woodchuck, one needs to be not only a husky individual, but something of an engineer; the direction of the burrow extends downward for a little way, and then rises at an easy angle, so that the inmate may be in no danger of flood. The nest is merely an enlargement of the burrow, lined with soft grass, which the woodchucks bring in in their mouths. During the early part of the season, the father and mother and the litter of young may inhabit the same burrow, although there are likely to be at least two separate nests. There is usually more than one back door to the woodchuck's dwelling, through which it may escape, if pressed too closely by enemies; these back doors differ from the entrance, in that they are usually hidden and have no earth heaped near them.

The woodchuck usually feeds in the morning and again in the evening, and is likely to spend the middle of the day resting. It often goes some distance from its burrow to feed, and at short intervals, lifts itself upon its hind feet to see if the coast is clear; if assailed, it will seek to escape by running to its burrow; and when running, it has a peculiar gait well described as "pouring itself along." If it reaches its burrow, it at once begins to dig deeply and throw the earth out behind it, thus making a wall to keep out the enemy. When cornered, the woodchuck is a courageous and fierce fighter; its sharp incisors prove a powerful weapon and it will often whip a dog much larger than itself. Every boy knows how to find whether the woodchuck is in its den or not, by rolling a stone into the burrow, and listening; if the animal is at home, the sound of its digging apprises the listener of the fact. In earlier times, the ground-hogs were much preyed upon by wolves, wildcats and foxes; now, only the fox remains and he is fast disappearing, so that at present, the farmer and his dog are about the only enemies this burrower has to contend with. It is an animal of resources and will climb a tree if attacked by a dog; it will also climb trees for fruit, like peaches. During the late summer, it is the ground-hog's business to feed very constantly and become very fat. About the first of October, it retires to its den and sleeps until the end of March or April. During this dormant state, the beating of its heart is so faint as to be scarcely perceptible, and very little nourishment is required to keep it alive; this nourishment is supplied by the fat stored in its body, which it uses up by March, and comes out of its burrow in the spring, looking gaunt and lean. The old saying that the ground-hog comes out on Candlemas Day, and if it sees its shadow, goes back to sleep for six weeks more, may savor of meteorological truth, but it is certainly not true of the ground-hog.

The full-grown woodchuck ordinarily measures about two feet in length. Its color is grizzly or brownish, sometimes blackish in places; the under parts are reddish and the feet black. The fur is rather coarse, thick and brown, with longer hairs which are grayish. The skin is very thick and tough and seems to fit loosely, a condition which gives the peculiar "pouring along" appearance when it is running. The hind legs and feet are longer than those in front. Both pairs of feet are fitted for digging, the front ones being used for loosening the earth and the hind pair for kicking it out of the burrow.

The woodchuck's ears are roundish and not prominent, and by muscular contraction they are closed when the animal is digging, so that no soil can enter; the sense of hearing is acute. The teeth consist of two large incisors at the front of each jaw, a bare space and four grinders on each side, above and below; the incisors are used for biting food and also for fighting. The eyes are full and bright. The tail is short and brushy, and it with the hind legs, form a tripod which supports the animal, as it sits with its forefeet lifted.


[Illustration]

Treed!

Photo by Verne Morton

When feeding, the woodchuck often makes a contented grunting noise; when attacked and fighting, it growls; and when feeling happy and conversational, it sits up and whistles. I had a woodchuck acquaintance once which always gave a high, shrill, almost birdlike whistle when I came in view, a very jolly greeting. There are plenty of statements in books that woodchucks are fond of music, and Mr. Ingersoll states that at Wellesley College a woodchuck on the chapel lawn was wont to join the morning song exercises with a "clear soprano." The young woodchucks are born about the first of May and the litter usually numbers four or five. In June the "chucklings" may be seen following the mother in the field with much babyish grunting. If captured at this period, they make very interesting pets. By August or September the young woodchucks leave the home burrow and start burrows of their own.


References—Wild Animals, Stone & Cram; Wild Neighbors, Ingersoll; Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers, Burroughs; Familiar Wild Animals, Lottridge.

Lesson LVI

The Woodchuck or Ground-Hog

Leading thought—The woodchuck has thriven with civilization, notwithstanding the farmer's dog, gun, traps and poison. It makes its nest in a burrow in the earth and lives upon vegetation; it hibernates in winter.


Method—Within convenient distance for observation by the pupils of every country schoolhouse and of most village schoolhouses, may be found a woodchuck and its dwelling. The pupils should be given the outline for observations which should be made individually through watching the woodchuck for weeks or months.


Observations—

1. Where is the woodchuck found? On what does it live? At what time of day does it feed? How does it act when startled?

2. Is the woodchuck a good fighter? With what weapons does it fight? What are its enemies? How does it escape its enemies when in or out of its burrow? How does it look when running?

3. What noises does the woodchuck make and what do they mean? Play a "mouth-organ" near the woodchuck's burrow and note if it likes music.

4. How does the woodchuck make its burrow? Where is it likely to be situated? Where is the earth placed which is taken from the burrow? How does the woodchuck bring it out? How is the burrow made so that the woodchuck is not drowned in case of heavy rains? In what direction do the underground galleries go? Where is the nest placed in relation to the galleries? Of what is the nest made? How is the bedding carried in? Of what special use is the nest?

5. Do you find paths leading to the entrances of the burrow? If so, describe them. How can you tell whether a woodchuck is at home or not if you do not see it enter? Where is the woodchuck likely to station itself when it sits up to look for intruders?

6. How many woodchucks inhabit the same burrow? Are there likely to be one or more back doors to the burrow? What for? How do the back doors differ from the front doors?

7. How long is the longest woodchuck that you have ever seen? What is the woodchuck's color? Is its fur long or short? Coarse or fine? Thick or sparse? Is the skin thick or thin? Does it seem loose or close fitting?

8. Compare the front and hind feet and describe difference in size and shape. Are either or both slightly webbed? Explain how both front and hind feet and legs are adapted by their shape to help the woodchuck. Is the tail long or short? How does it assist the animal in sitting up?

9. What is the shape of the woodchuck's ear? Can it hear well? Why are the ears not filled with soil when the animal is burrowing? Of what use are the long incisors? Describe the eyes.

10. How does the woodchuck prepare for winter? Where and how does it pass the winter? Did you ever know a woodchuck to come out on Candlemas Day to look for its shadow?

11. When does the woodchuck appear in the spring? Compare its general appearance in the fall and in the spring and explain the reason for the difference.

12. When are the young woodchucks born? What do you know of the way the mother woodchuck cares for her young?



As I turned round the corner of Hubbard's Grove, saw a woodchuck, the first of the season, in the middle of the field six or seven rods from the fence which bounds the wood, and twenty rods distant. I ran along the fence and cut him off, or rather overtook him, though he started at the same time. When I was only a rod and a half off, he stopped, and I did the same; then he ran again, and I ran up within three feet of him, when he stopped again, the fence being between us. I squatted down and surveyed him at my leisure. His eyes were dull black and rather inobvious, with a faint chestnut iris, with but little expression and that more of resignation than of anger. The general aspect was a coarse grayish brown, a sort of grisel. A lighter brown next the skin, then black or very dark brown and tipped with whitish rather loosely. The head between a squirrel and a bear, flat on the top and dark brown, and darker still or black on the tip of the nose. The whiskers black, two inches long. The ears very small and roundish, set far back and nearly buried in the fur. Black feet, with long and slender claws for digging. It appeared to tremble, or perchance shivered with cold. When I moved, it gritted its teeth quite loud, sometimes striking the under jaw against the other chatteringly, sometimes grinding one jaw on the other, yet as if more from instinct than anger. Whichever way I turned, that way it headed. I took a twig a foot long and touched its snout, at which it started forward and bit the stick, lessening the distance between us to two feet, and still it held all the ground it gained. I played with it tenderly awhile with the stick, trying to open its gritting jaws. Ever its long incisors, two above and two below, were presented. But I thought it would go to sleep if I stayed long enough. It did not sit upright as sometimes, but standing on its fore feet with its head down, i.e., half sitting, half standing. We sat looking at one another about half an hour, till we began to feel mesmeric influences. When I was tired, I moved away, wishing to see him run, but I could not start him. He would not stir as long as I was looking at him or could see him. I walked around him; he turned as fast and fronted me still. I sat down by his side within a foot. I talked to him quasi forest lingo, baby-talk, at any rate in a concilatory tone, and thought that I had some influence on him. He gritted his teeth less. I chewed checkerberry leaves and presented them to his nose at last without a grit; though I saw that by so much gritting of the teeth he had worn them rapidly and they were covered with a fine white powder, which, if you measured it thus, would have made his anger terrible. He did not mind any noise I might make. With a little stick I lifted one of his paws to examine it, and held it up at pleasure. I turned him over to see what color he was beneath (darker or most pusely brown), though he turned himself back again sooner than I could have wished. His tail was also brown, though not very dark, rat-tail like, with loose hairs standing out on all sides like a caterpillar brush. He had a rather mild look. I spoke kindly to him. I reached checkerberry leaves to his mouth. I stretched my hands over him, though he turned up his head and still gritted a little. I laid my hand on him, but immediately took it off again, instinct not being wholly overcome. If I had had a few fresh bean leaves, thus in advance of the season, I am sure I should have tamed him completely. It was a frizzly tail. His is a humble, terrestrial color like the partridge's, well concealed where dead wiry grass rises above darker brown or chestnut dead leaves—a modest color. If I had had some food, I should have ended with stroking him at my leisure. Could easily have wrapped him in my handkerchief. He was not fat nor particularly lean. I finally had to leave him without seeing him move from the place. A large, clumsy, burrowing squirrel. Arctomys, bear-mouse. I respect him as one of the natives. He lies there, by his color and habits so naturalized amid the dry leaves, the withered grass, and the bushes. A sound nap, too, he has enjoyed in his native fields, the past winter. I think I might learn some wisdom of him. His ancestors have lived here longer than mine. He is more thoroughly acclimated and naturalized than I. Bean leaves the red man raised for him, but he can do without them.

Thoreau's Journal


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