With the recent ‘celebration’ of Groundhog Day, it might be applicable to look at this critter after its day of prominence. I mean, the beginning of February, during the winter doldrums, is a good time for a little festivity, but this could be Skunk Day, or Snapping turtle Day, and any one of these would be just as applicable here in the Quoddy Region. Our grumpy woodchucks, the few that we have here, are still too busy hibernating to participate in such foolishness.
The Woodchuck, Marmota monax, (or Munimqehs in my Passamaquoddy reference book) is a large ground squirrel that is native to Northern and Eastern North America. It is a solitary animal and does not form a social group like other ground squirrels. The woodchuck is also pretty aggressive, and critters like the laid back Punxsutawney Phil are the exception to woodchuck society. When I was a youngster we once found a baby woodchuck that was the exception. Its mother or siblings must have kicked him out of the burrow because of this failing and we brought this relatively docile animal home. He was an interesting little critter and didn’t mind being handled, and went about his business of eating grass and other plants, until one day he wandered into the vegetable garden and ate some beans. Unfortunately, my father had just doused the beans with the latest and most toxic Japanese beetle spray, and this proved fatal to the poor woodchuck. We felt sad about our little pet, and a few days after a proper funeral, we saw an opportunity for a replacement, as we spotted a young woodchuck high up in a red maple near the edge of the woods. Our plans were immediate; I would shinny up the tree and shake the woodchuck down and my brother would catch him with a fishnet on the ground and we would positively keep him in a cage. Up the tree I went, down came the woodchuck and my brother expertly caught him, which precipitated a violent reaction of chewing and biting and scratching by the woodchuck. A few seconds later when I got down my brother was holding a badly mangled fishnet, and the woodchuck had left. Another lesson learned.
In my youth the owners of the small farms of rural Massachusetts welcomed my efforts at eliminating the pesty marmots, and it was an interesting challenge with either .22 or archery. I have long since graduated to Nikon, but woodchucks are not much of a quarry here. I have heard that there are woodchucks in Pembroke, but I have never seen one. I have seen some away from the coast, but not reliably along the highway until Bangor and further south. Woodchucks need a lot of food to fatten up during the summer and are almost exclusively herbivores, although some insects and even poultry have been reported in their diet. True hibernators, their body temperature drops to about 47 Deg F during their winter nap, but males may awaken in late winter and venture out in the snow before returning to hibernation. A very fastidious animal, it may build a separate chamber in its burrow system for a toilet, or bury its scat outdoors. The Native Americans prized the pelt of a woodchuck for making mittens, as apparently it makes a soft leather. The woodchucks prized the beans grown by the Native Americans, and the Indians trained their dogs to guard their gardens. With the coming of the European colonists the landscape was opened up for fields and gardens, and as more prime habitat became available, the woodchuck population increased, and its present population density seems to peak around Ohio.
I have never eaten woodchuck, although it apparently is a good flavored meat, but I have eaten and enjoyed other squirrels. On Groundhog Day I guess it wouldn’t be right to have the guest of honor on the menu. The cranky old woodchuck probably wouldn’t show up at all, and we would have winter all year round.