Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 25, 2008

Up Chuck and Die

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 11:03 am

  I have seen approximately 6 woodchucks since the middle of the March, so there is little doubt that their major hibernation period is over.  Of those I spotted, at least three were alive, although one of those is flirting with the reaper.  My first live groundhog was spotted on St. Patty’s Day -at the top of the morning, don’t ‘ja know – but my very first chuck of the season was a road kill seen on March 15. 

  I’ve always thought it to be the ultimate tragedy when a newly awakened woodchuck bumbles out of its burrow, after a long tough winter, and is creamed by a car. Instead of tasting the sweet green of another successful season, it is relegated to eating pavement.  Somehow it just doesn’t seem fair. The hibernation process is a very difficult thing to go through and you’d think there would be a grace period upon its completion. I can only imagine that there is a little corner of heaven for such creatures – an endless field of newly sprouted garden plants in a land where there are no shotguns or cars. Of course I quickly get over this initial sympathetic period by the time April rolls around.

  One of the live animals I spotted was the doubtful looking creature I referred to earlier. It was alive, but looked worse for wear.  There wasn’t much “hog” left on this groundhog. Sunken sides enhanced the profile of the jutting hips and it wobbled as it walked. Such a creature might have welcomed a trip to the eternal garden plot, but alas there were no roads in the vicinity.  It was so totally engrossed in filling his face on greens that nothing disturbed him (see here and here). I finally got his attention enough for him to look up and display his reddish leg fur (see here) but the moment was short-lived.

  The chuck was out in the middle of a large grassy area and apparently not fearful of predators. Even in this compromised condition, however, it still found it prudent to freeze into a low position when a human couple walked by.  In a long grass situation this action would have concealed it well, but looked ridiculous when performed on short turf.  Oddly enough, the couple did not seem to spot it! After the “danger” passed, the woodchuck resumed grass chucking.

  Not all the chucks I saw were this emaciated. Most of the dead ones (aside from being dead) and the other two living examples looked pretty good. 

  All of this brings up the question as to what stimulates woodchucks to emerge in the spring.  By the way, it is a fascinating little quirk of the English language that causes a woodchuck to immerge in the fall and emerge in the spring. It is equally intriguing that while in hibernation they are hypothermic with a body temperature equal to the surrounding ground (we’ve talked about this before) and normothermic when active. The question is, then, what prompts the return to normothermia? The answer appears to be two-fold.

  First of all, there is evidence that a hibernating woodchuck arouses every now and then over the winter, so out of a 3 to 4 month season it may only be torpid for two months. The animals are subject to the cycles of their internal clocks and have been shown to arouse in the morning and return to deep sleep in the afternoon. All of this is regardless of the air temperature. The final, or so-called terminal, spring arousal occurs according to the dictums of this same biorhythmic clock. In which case, a special patch of brown fat, located between the shoulder blades, acts to jump start the process with a high energy boost.

  Once awake inside the den, the chucks do not break their fast, but instead wait for the next warm day in order to emerge. In other words, the chucks are up well before they actually come up at the beckoning of the sun. During this first period of wakefulness, the males generally patrol their territory and seek out willing females.  The gals, freshly awakened themselves, are not ready to mate yet, so the guys have to be satisfied with a simple “see ‘ya some time.”

  The next step is for the woodchucks to return to their dens to sleep it off for a few days or weeks. Their second coming is a no nonsense affair. Assuming the creek don’t rise and there are no roads in the way, the boy chucks and the girl chucks meet for a brief fling and spring becomes official.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress