Of Woodchucks (and Lawns)

Lawns.  I am not a big fan of them.  I love meadows, or even lightly tended fields.

Summer rain over a Vermont field full of buttercups (Ranunculus spp.)

I prefer to have a yard rather than a lawn, that flat expanse of close trimmed grass we call a lawn has never been all that appealing to me.  A “yard” does not carry the implication of maintenance that a “lawn” implies.  Lawns are an integral part of American life though, and are found even in places completely unsuited to their presence.  In some areas neighborhood associations mandate how your lawn must look, what you can and can’t have on it, and, in extreme cases, what shade of green it must be and how many inches tall it must be.

There are many theories behind why lawns exist, some people claim that it is a relict of animal husbandry, particularly sheep and how a grazed landscape looks.  Others claim that it taps into some deep species memory of living on a savanna, that the flat, open land is visually soothing and  provides a sense of safety and removal from danger and the unknown.  Some claim that lawns are a symbol of our control over nature, our own private, manufactured landscapes.

The most interesting idea I’ve heard for the prevalence of lawns in the US is in Charles C. Mann’s excellent book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  He suggests that wide, expansive lawns may have been an anti-malaria survival strategy.  A house on a rise on the landscape with cleared land around it would catch the breeze and prevent malaria carrying mosquitoes from getting into the house.  Lawns became embedded in the social consciousness of the emerging United States and spread with the population, as symbolic as the flag or fireworks, though more subtle and having greater practical value.  It is an interesting idea and makes as much, or more, sense as any other idea concerning lawns that I have read.

What bothers me about lawns is that they tend to be uniform monocrops with little three-dimensional texture.  This lack of diversity limits what wildlife visits a lawn, and I, as an ecologist and someone who is always investigating things, love diversity.  My yard here in Vermont is diverse, but my landlord likes a short lawn and cuts it down to an inch or two in height.  Every time he does so all the insects, birds, and mammals flee, taking weeks to return.  I like all those mobile visitors.

Dew covered Funnel-Web or Grass Spider webs (Agelenopsis spp.)

One of the visitors to my lawn is a plump woodchuck (Marmota monax).  It only crosses the road to my lawn when the vegetation reaches 6-8 inches, then it visits nearly every evening and some mornings a well.  This rotund fellow is wary and alert, standing up and peering about at the slightest out of place sound.

Woodchuck (Marmota monax) alert for danger

The name Woodchuck is actually a derivative of a Native American name wuchak, and has nothing to do with either wood or chucking, despite generations of woodchuck chucking wood tongue-twisters.

Woodchucks, also known as Groundhogs, Land-Beavers, and, my favorite, Whistle-Pigs are marmots, large rodents related to ground squirrels.  Most of the marmot family are alpine dwellers, commonly found in high grassy places from Europe to Asia and through North America, but the woodchuck is a lowland species wide-spread in the northeastern and central United States, and through Canada up to Alaska.  Like other marmots woodchucks have a piercing alarm call, a sharp whistle that carries far, sometimes with a bit of a burbling quality to it.

Woodchuck from the rear

Most often a woodchuck will appear as a furry lump on the grass, something like a cross of a loaf of bread, a caterpillar, and a fat otter pretending to be a cat.  Many people have a particular dislike for woodchucks because they eat garden vegetables and ornamental plants.  A good friend of mine has been driven to distraction by one that is eating her hydrangeas.  The one that visits my lawn (but only when it has not been cut for a while) eats the dandelions and fleabane, basically weeding the yard for me.

Woodchuck eating weeds from my yard

During the spring, summer, and fall woodchucks pile on as much fat as they can, much like small bears.  Come winter they retreat to a specially dug winter burrow to hibernate.  Marmots are some of the few animals that enter true hibernation.  They radically slow all their metabolic processes and remain oblivious to the world until mating time, often beginning in February or March, possibly later the further north they live.

Woodchucks have marvelously thick and soft fur, as do other marmots.  I have a hat I bought in western China with a marmot fur ruff that is too warm for me to wear in nearly any weather.  Despite putting on a tremendous amount of fat their flesh is lean, most of the fat is in a subcutaneous layer, just beneath the skin, with the rest stored in the body cavity between the internal organs.

Woodchucks are the most solitary of marmots and are said to be aggressive.  They can be hand raised to be cuddly, but it takes a great deal of effort to overcome their feisty nature.

Surprisingly, woodchucks are reputed to be agile climbers in an emergency, though I have yet to see one scale a tree.  Most often what I see is one popping up to look about:

Wary woodchuck watches for danger

Followed by a rapid retreat if I am not careful, quiet, and slow moving:

Just too dangerous around here…

I like this occasional visitor to my yard, and, given the option, do not mow my lawn as if I do it will not come by to visit.

Mainly because it is silly – if the animation is not working, click the image

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A note:  my posts may become a bit erratic for a few months, I am in the midst of finishing one job, moving (maybe twice), and will hopefully be beginning a new job in a different country.  Eventually this will provide great material for the ongoing exploration of nature, but the route there may be a little irregular and unpredictable.  Bear with it, I will not abandon my writing and photography.

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The Short-Tailed Shrew, an evolutionary superstar

He [Raven] looked about and thought there was nothing on the land as lively as the fish in the water, so he made the shrew-mice, for he said, “They will skip about and enliven the ground and prevent it from looking dead and barren, even if they are not good for food.”                                                                                     – from Clara Bayliss’s 1909 collection A Treasury of Eskimo Tales.

Northern Short-Tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda) sniffing the air for prey

Creation myths aside, our early mammalian ancestors were little omnivorous insectivores very much like modern shrews.  Mammals evolved some 200 million or so years ago and lived alongside the dinosaurs, but did not grow to large size until millions of years after the dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago.

Today we are a diverse group of flying, swimming, and running creatures ranging in size from the blue whale 120 feet long with a heart the size of a small car down to shrews no more than a few inches long, weighing less than an ounce.  We don’t know much about our early ancestors, small terrestrial creatures rarely leave fossil remains, but from what we can tell it seems that the shrew body design and hunting strategy is extremely successful and has remained a persistent mammalian body plan.

Shrew-like creatures live all over the world and are renowned for their ferocity, appetite, boldness, and their unusual (at least in mammals) venomous bite.  Here in Vermont the shrew you are most likely to encounter is the Northern Short-Tailed Shrew (Blarina brevicauda).  As near as I can make out, Blarina roughly translates to “nose-necked” and brevicauda actually does mean “short-tailed”, making this one of the few animals that has a matching common and scientific name.  Shrews are in the Soricidae family, which just means, “the shrew family.”

Short-Tailed Shrew running over freshly cut grass

Shrews move rapidly, driven by their rapid metabolism and resulting need to eat constantly.  They move with a peculiar blend of short, jerky twitches and weasel-like fluidity.  The shrew in the photos was hunting for insects and earthworms in freshly cut grass.  I followed it for perhaps 200 feet, and during that time it only stopped to sniff out prey, to eat it, and to hide from the dog that wanted to know what I was watching so avidly.

Like many predators, shrews are curious, engaging in high risk, high reward activities.  Their eyesight is poor, but their sense of smell is excellent.  How good their hearing is seems to be uncertain, some people thinking it is good, others poor.  I suspect that it is pretty good and that they are sensitive to vibrations via their whiskers and feet.

Searching for food

Unlike many animals the shrew had no fear of me what-so-ever, not even flinching when I stroked its back as it ate one of the 4 earthworms it caught while I was watching.  Every small animal nearby, on the other hand, was terrified of the shrew.  Insects froze into immobility, antennae twitching and heads slowly tracking as the shrew passed by.  Well should these creatures be wary of the shrew.  If a shrew goes more than a few hours without eating it will starve to death.

Short-Tailed shrews are tiny, massing between 2 and 5 US quarters (about .5 to 1 ounce), but they are perfectly capable of killing and eating prey several times their size.  There is a 3 minute National Geographic TV video of a shrew exploring a garden, then killing and eating a garter snake much larger than itself.  Most of the time shrews will content themselves with insects, worms, and seeds.

The dense fur of a shrew

Shrew fur is thick and dense, like the fur of an otter, but lacking the oily guard hairs.  The fur is so dense that it is waterproof, allowing some species of shrew to hunt underwater.  Shrews need this dense fur to keep warm through the winter.  Their small size means they lose heat quickly, necessitating both a rapid metabolism and good insulation.  In winter they remain beneath the snow as much as possible, eating cached food, keeping activity to a minimum, and burning brown adipose tissue (what we commonly call “brown fat”) to keep warm without resorting to shivering.

They have as many predators as they have prey, but their venom and unpleasant musk helps to keep some mammalian predators at bay.

Shrews are tremendously strong for their size.  I could see the back and neck muscles bulging as this shrew pulled earthworms from the soil.  It pulled a short section of the worm from the ground and ate it, pulled another short bit, ate that, and continued, as though it was eating Twizzlers at the movies.

Pulling an earthworm from the ground

We humans are proud of our accomplishments, but perhaps we should be more humble before the little shrew.  This tiny creature, so easily killed by a careless foot is upholding 200 million years of successful mammalian tradition, wearing a body design that gave rise to all other mammals from humans to whales, bats to elephants, beavers to monkeys.