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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Blue-Eyed Grass, diminuitive irises

From California to New England, from Alaska to Texas there is a small, easily overlooked wildflower that is blooming now and will continue to do so for several more months, depending on where you are of course.  The flowers of this plant are small, only a little more than a centimeter across have six petals, a yellow center, and are often blue in color, hence one of the common generic names, Blue-Eyed Grass, although there are yellow and white variations.  To see them clearly you have to get close, crouching or laying on the ground.

Common Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium montanum)

You can see from the photo that the leaves of this diminutive plant are broad and flat, much like the leaves of the grass it grows amongst.  In Vermont there are several variations of this plant, Sisyrinchium montanum being the most common, hence the name, Common Blue-Eyed Grass, which is, unfortunately, not tremendously imaginative.  When it is not flowering it’s easy to see why it might be mistaken for a grass, it has a similar leaf shape and is of a similar height to the grass it grows amongst.  The flowers clearly set it apart though.  Petals are little flags to attract insects, birds, and in some cases lizards or mammals to the flower for pollination for which they are rewarded with nectar.  Grasses have no such need, like willows, poplars, and pines they rely on wind to distribute their pollen and petals are a hindrance and a waste of energy for a plant that uses wind rather than animals for pollination.

Wind pollinated grass flowers with Blue-Eyed Grass flowers in the background

Sisyrinchium, the Blue Eyed-Grasses are tiny irises.  The Iridaceae family is widespread and often used as ornamental plants in gardens or in bouquets.  The larger irises have showy, ornate, soft flowers that fold and flow in complicated shapes, looking little like the small, robust Sisyrinchium flowers.  In the wild, the larger irises tend to grow in places that are either damp, shady, or both.  The Blue-Eyed Grasses live in harsher regions, open meadows, occasionally on rocky ledges, the edges of open areas, in short, places that can get hot and dry.  This may partially explain their small, robust stature.

Like other irises Sisyrinchium has inferior ovaries, this is not a commentary on the quality of the ovaries, it is a botanical term meaning that the ovaries are below the flower rather than the flower surrounding the ovaries.  These little plants produce globular three-part capsules about the size of a BB filled with numerous little seeds.

Blue-Eyed Grass with immature seed capsules

I grew up looking at these little flowers on the wildflower rich coastal prairie of Northern California, but just a few days ago I discovered something new (to me) about them.  They are active, they open their flowers for the day and close them for the night.  I tried my hand at a time-lapse of a flower opening.  It’s a bit rough, but you get the picture.

Blue-Eyed Grass flower opening animation

I love finding out things, being surprised by life, experiencing the unexpected, and encountering things I do not know.  I’m glad that these little irises reminded me that such a small, seemingly mundane thing can be interesting and exciting.