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BREAKING NEWS

Cutie in the treetops

I’ve always thought it special to live in the county that boasts its own groundhog prognosticator.

Years ago six of us did journey south to join the party for Punxsutawney Phil.

A woman in our group, much nervier than I, got press passes for all and pushed through security to get us front row seats. It was dark. It was cold. And if a stranger, spotting my credentials, insisted I interview her, I wasn’t about to refuse. Thousands were there (assuredly behind me) plus skimpily dressed young women with the officials in their top hats.

While Dunkirk Dave has a definite cachet about him, groundhogs – woodchucks – are hardly rare around here. A nuisance to gardeners and a danger to field-walkers not intent on looking for holes, I have to admit they are also quite cute.

Admitting here my ignorance as well, I still, twenty years later, find it exceptionally difficult to distinguish a woodchuck from a beaver. In the water, I add the nuisance muskrat to my confusion though his different swim gives him away pretty fast. My guidebooks tell me the beaver is twice as large (am I truly that blind to the obvious?) with the woodchuck being approximately the size of an opossum. (No way.)

OK, so one’s in the water, one’s down the hill and the other may be on the deck or up the tree.

Then again, that’s no help either for, while a beaver prefers to eat them, woodchucks are surprisingly adept at climbing trees. I remember the first time I came eye to eye with one actually even a little bit higher than that. It stayed and posed nicely when I returned, camera in hand. I presume it just wanted a better vantage point for neither the dogs nor I posed a threat.

While farmers may find the woodchuck the bane of their existence, I read that they have advantages besides being adorable (to this female observer). All right, I’ll grant they munch crops and dig those dangerous holes but their burrows provide homes for rabbits, possums, raccoons, skunks and even foxes. And, being a clean little varmint, it has a separate excrement chamber which ultimately fertilizes the earth. According to my Audubon guide, in our state alone they turn up over a million tons of soil every year.

Groundhog Day was supposed to mark the visible end of his hibernation but in the northern U.S. that generally occurs much later.

Sounds like our little friend is quite the confirmed bachelor. Once he wakes from his winter’s sleep, his first interest is in finding a mate. (I rather suspect a hearty breakfast might take precedence.) He stays no longer than needed and quickly returns back to his own home, leaving ma with usually four or five kids born about a month later.

The babes arrive naked and blind, totally helpless for the next month or so. Then they open their eyes and start to crawl. Audubon says they “disperse” in another month though I imagine they still need some time to get used to that great world beyond the burrow.

The same source tells us their primary enemy is the human hunter, followed by the automobile (that should come as no surprise to us drivers) and then large predators, particularly the red fox.

Confession: adorable or not, I’d happily sacrifice one woodchuck to be able to see a red fox that close.

But only one.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com