Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Glade Sun

June 3, 2014

ENJOYING NATURE: Would you want a woodchuck?

CROSSVILLE — I got a call from my friend, Sara, a couple of weeks ago. She wondered if I wanted to try to get a photo of a mama and three of the cutest baby critters that you ever saw, sunning themselves on a rock in her yard. The critters were woodchucks.

Sara said that mama woodchuck would sun herself on a rock, while the babies would play and explore. Once, the neighbor's cat got too close and mama woodchuck chased the cat through two yards, away from her babies. The cat ran for its life. A full grown 9-12 pound woodchuck probably only worries about coyotes and bobcats, but the little ones are at risk from roaming house cats, hawks, snakes, and foxes as well.

Back in Pennsylvania we called them groundhogs, and some folks call them whistle pigs; its all the same animal. Woodchucks are members of the squirrel family, and although you don't normally see them climbing a tree like a gray squirrel, they can climb. A group of hiking friends that I know found out the hard way that woodchucks climb trees. The hikers stopped in the shade for lunch and shortly it started to rain. But, when looking up, they discovered, that instead of rain clouds, it was a woodchuck raining down on them. That can ruin a good sandwich in a hurry.

Woodchucks aren't normally wood's animals. They like open fields to dig their 20-40 foot long burrows. More and more folks around here, like Sara, are finding woodchucks near their yards. They eat vegetation like grass and clover and, some people discovered, that woodchucks think garden plants are tasty, too.

I know several people nearby who have live trapped woodchucks in their yards and driven them several miles away to release them. The overlook seems to be an oft mentioned spot. Just based on what I have heard from different people, the overlook must be overrun with relocated woodchucks, squirrels, and chipmunks. However, as you know, nature does not like a vacuum. If your yard was attractive to those animals in the first place, I can almost guarantee that it will fill back in with a close relative once vacant habitat is available. Keep the trap handy.

Back in Pennsylvania, where I grew up, farmers were all too happy to give permission to hunt groundhogs, as we always called them, on their farms. Besides eating the farmer's crops, the burrow holes were a danger to farm equipment and legs of farm animals. When I was about 10 years old, my best buddy Dan and I went groundhog hunting with his dad. He must have been a pretty good shot because he got two groundhogs with an old open sight .22 rifle. Dan's dad loaded the groundhogs in the car and we drove to a poor section of town. His dad told us to grab the dead groundhogs and knock on a door. We did, and when a big old woman opened the door, we sheepishly asked if she wanted the animals. She broke into a big smile, thanked us, took dinner by the tails and closed the door. You can tell that made a big impression on me, because 50 some years later, I still remember it clearly.

Now, I have eaten a lot of wild game and honestly, didn't like most of it. I ate every squirrel or rabbit that I ever shot, but can't say that I really enjoyed it. Squirrel was bad enough, and eating groundhog never crossed my mind. But if you look on Google, you will find many cookbooks devoted entirely to woodchuck. I have read that the meat is all dark meat, but mild and tasty. Heck, it is an all organic, free range, natural product. Let me know how that works out for you. I finally did get a photo of a couple of Sara's cute little woodchucks. But it was a couple of weeks later. The kids grew up fast, and the "babies" were now almost as big as their mama. Soon, they will be leaving home to find their own territory ... maybe even in your backyard. If that becomes a problem, let me know; I will trade a couple of troublesome gray squirrels for a cute woodchuck any day.

Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at don.hazel@gmail.com

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