I consider it somewhat significant that I saw my first woodchuck of the season about four days before the official start of Spring. It was on St. Patty’s day to be exact and it was in the form of a dim looking chuck seeking a bit o’ the green. He was actually seeking a bite o’ the green – as in grasses and herbs along the edge of a roadway. Since I’ve seen ‘chucks out and about at all times of the winter, including January, the fact that this one was out four days before the vernal equinox was not especially important, but the fact that he was alive was. It is more typical for me to see the first chuck of the season as a roadkill.
This chuck was doing what most up-chucks do when they emerge from hibernation. They head for the nearest grassy hillside or greenway seeking greens because they are very hungry after 3-4 months of fasting. Roadsides are especially appealing because the banked right-of-ways offer precocious sun-warmed grasses. Unfortunately, to a starving disoriented whistlepig the other side of the road always looks greener. Of this I need not say more.
My top ‘o the morning chuck looked rather dusty, befuddled, and buck-toothy. He looked exactly like what you’d expect from a creature that just awoke from a winter long coma. Just a few weeks ago, his heart was barely pumping at 3 beats per minute and his rectal temperature was 38-40 degrees F. Now that his heart is racing at around 90 beats per minute and his body temperature is over 90 degrees, he is out looking to get even with the guy who took his rectal temperature! But, first there is the need to eat.
The second duty of a newly risen chuck is to thank his lucky stars that he is alive. Hibernation is a hazardous thing to do and many chucks end up in eternal sleep due to poor body conditions, flooding, and improper application of rectal thermometers by scientists. They leave their dead remains neatly curled up in the bedroom. Male woodchucks start their year out seeking females since the breeding season begins in March and continues through the end of April. The females start their year out by cleaning out their dens in anticipation of soon “being in a motherly state.”
In the absence of actually seeing a live or once-live animal, a visit to your local woodchuck den will reveal whether your local population is up and Adam yet. Evidence of spring cleaning (see above) around the den entrance is a good sign (it’s a bad sign if you are a gardener, but good if your garden is located across a road from the den!). Chucks are fastidious burrow tenders and will make every effort to keep their quarters clean. Just because their homes are made of dirt doesn’t mean they have to be dirty.
A typical tunnel system will be some 25 feet long and about 5 feet underground. A side chamber, tucked well back and in along one of the corridors, serves as a nest and sleeping chamber. It is lined with dried grasses and leaves in the fall to serve as a winter coma chamber. This old laundry is the first to go out the front door come spring and it can be easily seen scattered over the soil pile.
Normal den systems have a main entrance with a conspicuous pile of dirt and a spy hole entrance/exit for subtle departures. The spy hole is usually dirt free since it is excavated from the inside. I recently came upon a pair of den entrances that both displayed evidence of cleaning. Oddly enough, both also contained raccoon remains among the stale leaves and newly dusted dirt (see below and here).
Apparently skeleton removal is a regular item on the spring woodchuck to-do list. it is not unusual to find the remains of former woodchucks cast from the burrow as well as rabbit, opossum, or other such subterranean creatures. Most of these parts are from previous occupants who died many years before in some ante-chamber – you know like the mother from the Bates Motel.
It is most likely that several raccoons had claimed these dens as winter retreats at some point but had the rudeness to die once inside. Raccoons do that, you know. One of the skulls (see here) showed signs that it had been skinned by a trapper and displayed many fine cut lines about the snout. Another fully skinned raccoon probably dragged this carcass down into the burrow in order to feed on it. Raccoons do that also, you know. The chucks, well, they just clean up and go about their lives.