I used to live in Ohio, in a converted chicken coop. Yes, really, a chicken coop. Outside there was a huge Mulberry tree. I would climb up and gather the mulberries for muffins, salads, and snacks. One day, as I started to shimmy up the tree, a loud whistle startled me. In the time it took me to process the sound and look up, my resident groundhog came scrambling down the tree, leapt onto the ground, and disappeared around the corner of the house.
Surprise! I had never seen a groundhog in a tree before. I didn’t know they climbed but I had never given them much thought. Now, I know that they are generally regarded as pests and nuisances. I have to confess, though, that I find them quite adorable in a roguish sort of way. Even as he would steal my bird feeders and crunch them to pieces, this particular groundhog endeared himself to me as we shared the bounty of the Mulberry tree. It made me realize that I am not so far removed from animal instinct as most people believe. I mean, a great tasting berry is worth climbing for.
Groundhogs, woodchucks, whistle pigs, marmots, gophers, and chucks are all monikers of this furry, brown member of the squirrel family. Squirrel! It makes more sense that they can climb trees now. They are considered a ground squirrel, one of 14 members of the Marmota genus. Alright, enough science-speak. Really, what I want to share is that they are a squirrel.
I have first-hand experience in how frustrating their burrow systems can be, especially when dug in a hay field. A single groundhog hole can tip a fully loaded wagon of hay. No wonder they are cursed by farmers and gardeners alike. An herbivore, they make short work of vegetables and grasses, packing it on as layers of fat that will get them through their winter hibernation.
It is easy to take such common things for granted. I think we all look forward to February 2 and the prediction of a famous groundhog, but the real treat is seeing them in the fields along the road. That’s when spring has truly arrived. After that, we forget them. A dime a dozen, it is hard to value something that it consistently there. They are a bit like Red Squirrels, Blue Jays, White-Footed Mice, Mourning Doves, and White-tailed Deer — wildlife that is beautiful, adaptable, and graceful but maligned because they are common enough that their everyday actions annoy us.
What pleasure that we have animals that are so common. In an era where animals face extinction, extirpation, disease, and inbreeding because of such small population sizes, we have animals that can survive, and are surviving, even thriving! It is hard to love them sometimes. I know that it is difficult for me when I find “presents” from the mice on my counter and find all my pistachios eaten, the container revealing a perfect mouse-chewed hole. Yet at the same time, I marvel at their adaptive behaviors, the perfect circles they chew, and the power of those little incisors.
Groundhogs may be a plague to you or your garden or your tractor and fields. I urge you to stop and marvel at their adaptations, though. This animal digs complicated burrows. It climbs trees. It gets chubby eating dandelions. It spends the winter in a suspended state, breathing slows dramatically, it lowers body temperature from 90+ degrees Fahrenheit to a remarkable 40 degrees F (that’s the milk in your fridge, folks), and its heartbeat slows from over 100 beats per minute to four. Cool stuff. It has stubby little legs but can run quite fast. It will flee from danger if it can, but will aggressively fight when cornered. Groundhogs are kind of neat when you look at their whole life, not just their holes and appetites.
Common is still beautiful. Common is still companionable. Common can still be magical. I remember one Day Camp we were riding in the van, the kids were mostly eighth and ninth grade. One camper was a city kid and hadn’t spent much time in the country. He looked out the window as we passed a field and yelled “Beaver! There’s a beaver!” We all sort of looked then giggled, “That’s a woodchuck.” “What’s a woodchuck?” After explaining the basic differences between a woodchuck and a beaver, he returned to his survey out the window. “Woodchuck!” he yelled. “With chucklets! It has chucklets!” It was belly-hurt laughing funny. I still call them chucklets, and it makes me smile every time.
May we all be so fortunate to find such joy in the commonplace. The beauty of our everyday world surrounds us and all too often we fail to see its value or inherent beauty. A groundhog is just a nuisance rodent until you cast off what you know and dig a little deeper.
Sarah Hatfield is Education Coordinator at ACNC.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.