Last month I was a speaker at a regional gathering of master gardeners. My theme was a general approach to the natural history of the fall season. As part of my spiel, I presented the lowly woodchuck as one type of creature that spends the fall season preparing for winter hibernation. I moved on to other topics and eventually opened the thing up for questions. One gal, way up in the top row of seats, posed a simple question that stumped me for longer than it should have. “Mr. Wykes,” she inquired, “can you name one thing that woodchucks are good for?” Knowing that these earthy members of the squirrel family are the arch enemy of all gardeners, I should have been prepared for such a challenge.
I firmly believe that there are no bad plants or animals – only plants or animals in bad places. This means that “bad” fauna or flora are victims of circumstances. Weeds, for instance, are simply plants growing where they are not wanted. Well, my immediate response regarding the woodchuck should have been on an equal keel to my definition of a weed, but I paused before giving my answer. This set up an ominous chuckle among the assembled green thumbs before me as if I was confirming their perception of what must surely be a worthless beast.
“O.K., here’s one good thing,” I finally retorted. “Woodchuck hides make good shoelaces.” This answer hit the right spot with this group because of the obvious necessity of killing the chuck in order to get the hide, but it also raised many a quizzical eyebrow. Living woodchucks have incredibly tough skins. This fact, combined with their ability to turn around within their skins and land some viscous bites, makes them formidable foes when attacked. In a deadly slapdown between a dog and a woodchuck, the outcome is never certain. Chuck skin is not impervious to human propelled lead, however. So when one was “removed’ from the garden in this manner it was often skinned and the tanned hide rendered into shoelaces. The laces were cut out of the skin as a spiral in order to get the proper lengths.
Folks don’t make chuck shoe strings anymore as far as I know, but you might want to revive the tradition next time you see a dead one along the road.
My shoelace response was only a stalling effort to come up with something genuinely enviable and good about woodchucks. Sure, they are personable – one chuck has more personality than five fox squirrels – but this means little to those who’d rather interview them with a tire or shotgun. The whole hibernation thing, now that’s something to think about. When asked if the audience would see favor with curling up to sleep through the entire winter, there were some head nods. No shoveling, driving on ice, and such. Woodchucks are one of a very select group of animals that can do this. Even bears can’t do this (they don’t hibernate).
The best part, and may I say the clincher to my pro-chuck argument, is that these animals are required to eat like pigs and are required to get fat. What say you humans to that, eh? Let’s forget for the moment that they are eating your garden plants, and focus on the reality that a skinny woodchuck is a dead woodchuck. Hibernation requires a lot of fat reserves. For a brief moment many in the group could see some small comfort in a world without diets and their eyes momentarilty lost focus and gazed upward.
Woodchucks literally become groundhogs over the course of the autumn. They will eat the leafy part of any green plant (see here) and take special delight in munching on acorns (see here this creature doing just such a thing). Records indicate that a typical animal can eat over a pound and a half of food daily. All this effort is geared to that late October/early November day when the time comes to enter the winter den and begin to live off that fat for a few months.
I believe I left that group with at least a grain of admiration for Garden Enemy No. 1. I also left them with the following thought: When asked by the woodchuck wife if she looks fat, Mr. Chuck had better say “Yes” if he knows what is good for him. Now that’s an alternate universe. Before somebody gets on me about writing a pro-fat piece, let me qualify my presentation with an acknowledgement that chucks don’t live very long and that even skinny people don’t live in holes.