Woodchuck’s Guests

This is a page to accompany a discussion of these large shouldered, burrowing rodents who are celebrated on February 2nd (and fretted over throughout the growing season by aspiring Northeastern gardeners).

While woodchucks do tend to relentlessly raid human’s vegetable patches, they are well known for other interesting characteristics. Almost exclusively vegetarian, over hundreds of thousands of years, they have responded to the seasonal unavailability of fresh greens and fruit by evolving great skills at hibernation. They’ve adapted behaviorally and physiologically to the rhythms of yearly weather by adding layers of insulating and energy-storing fat in the late summer and early fall. This accomplished, they retreat to the deep, leaf-lined chambers that they dug and furnished during the growing season. Once there, some six feet below ground, they drift into a deep state of unconsciousness. Their heart will beat only five or six times a minute. They’ll only breath every five minutes or so, and their body temperature will drop to an average of 45 degrees F. (compared to their normal temperature in the mid nineties). In this state of profoundly slowed metabolism, they’ll endure the winter.

But beyond this remarkable ability to hibernate profoundly (an adaptation shared with only two other New England mammals in Southern New Hampshire: the jumping mouse and the little brown bat), they also contribute significantly to the workings of the forest ecosystem. Their vigorous digging mixes the minerals and organic material in the varied levels of soil. Their activities bring more oxygen into the lower layers. Moreover, the resulting tunnels provide fine habitat and shelter for several dozen different kinds of animals – large and small.

To actually appreciate a few of the specific creatures who find shelter in woodchucks’ underground tunnel systems , children are invited to color, cut out, and construct an interactive page featuring some of woodchuck’s guests. Several of the animals are presented in such a way that they can be hidden under folded tabs with identifying words. (All the sections should be cut along the dashed lines and folded along the dotted ones.) When the colored creature cut-outs have been arranged in a plausible way and the youngsters have told each other a story or tow, the children can use glue sticks to attach the creatures to the tunnels. If they like, they can ask fellow students, friends, and family members to guess who’s finding shelter in their woodchuck’s den. In this way, they can share with other people their new understanding of the ‘whistle pig’s’ role in their ecosystem.

Hints: North American Cottontail Rabbits do not tunnel – unlike their European, North African, and Asian relatives. Therefore, the cottontail rabbit would tend to rest in the upper level of the burrow near one of the doorways. Red fox is probably just walking by, checking into the tunnel system. She is of course a carnivore who might eat some of these other animals if they weren’t safely hidden away inside the narrow rooms of the tunnel system. Red Fox will need to do a little remodeling (definitely widening the main entrance and tunnels) if she decides to return in the spring and use parts of this den as a home for her kits.

Recommended references:

Tracking and the Art of Seeing, 2nd. ed. Rezendes, Paul. New York: Collins Reference, 1999.

ESF SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry article on woodchucks: https://www.esf.edu/aec/adks/mammals/woodchuck.htm