Woodchucks prepare for long winter nap

PHOTOS BY GARRY BRANDENBURG — A woodchuck, or Groundhog, or if one uses its scientific name Marmota monax, was viewed recently feeding on whatever it could stuff into its cheek pouches. Fall is prime feeding time for this species to put on the pounds and become as fat as possible before it enters its deep hibernation at the end of October or early November. Its body fat will sustain the animal for the next six months as it avoids the stresses of winter in an underground burrow.

WOODCHUCKS, also known locally as Groundhogs, are preparing for next winter. Their goal is to eat a lot of food, gain weight and gain fat reserves. Those reserves will be used to sustain its life for six months from November to next April while the critter sleeps. Not a bad plan that Mother Nature has designed for certain species of ground squirrels to allow them to survive. Obviously a long cold winter is not the best time to be searching for food sources. So this large rodent sleeps without a care except to wake up next April.

Marmots in mountainous regions are cousins to our Midwestern woodchuck. There is the Yellow-bellied Marmot or Hoary Marmot in places from Alaska, Alberta, Canada, British Columbia and northern Washington. Our common groundhog has a range throughout central and northeastern states.

How big does a woodchuck become in its adult life? Length will be 17 to 26 inches including its tail. Weight will become 4.5 to 9 pounds. Most of the animal’s extra weight gain each fall is expended during hibernation. Average lifespan in wild conditions is thought to be six years. Captive woodchucks can make it to 10 years. Their very muscular legs are built to dig burrows that can become quite lengthy, up to 45 feet long with side tunnels and separate sleeping chamber. Its diet consists of grasses, clovers, garden vegetables, leaves, twigs, apples, berries and dandelions. They will also obtain protein from insect grubs, grasshoppers, bugs, snails and small mammals. Mating happens in the spring. Gestation takes 28 to 32 days. Young are born hairless and blind. A normal litter can be as low as two or as high as six. Five to six weeks after they are born they will be weaned and begin feeding on green leafy materials.

This animal can become a pest of the highest order if it decides to dig a burrow under out buildings or under floor slabs. Once discovered, evicting a groundhog is extremely difficult. Live traps may be used and are rarely successful. Trying to put all the excavated tunnel dirt back into a tunnel is next to impossible. Prevention is a key element for outbuildings by intentionally installing extra deep footings or placing a layer of heavy close-mesh wire buried well below grade prior to any final landscape fill.

OCTOBER HAPPENINGS can span the entire range of mild and warm to severe cold and snowy. That is just the way it is at the beginning of the fall season. Earth’s position along its orbit around the Sun guarantees seasonal weather changes. Hopefully we can enjoy some “Indian summer” weather for a while. Do take advantage of any good weather days for outside work, garden final cleanup and lots of outside hikes along trails.

We have experienced all kinds of good warm, mild or down right cold October weather. A mid October heavy wet snow during the 1980s was so heavy it broke tree branches still holding onto their leafy canopies. And history takes note of Oct. 31, 1991 when a blizzard of snow and 60 mph winds in northwest Iowa ended up with 16 inches of snow on the ground. That same date a catastrophic ice accumulation happened from Clarinda to Forest City, making life very difficult for everyone for a brief period of time.

Hunters know the drill that October brings. Early hunting seasons began Oct. 1 for archery deer in Iowa. Oct. 3 is opening for ruffed grouse, a forest game bird, whose typical habitats are the forests of northeast and eastern Iowa. Iowa deer hunters using muzzle-loader rifles see that season open on Oct. 17-25. Youth pheasant season begins Oct. 24-25. Regular pheasant season begins Oct. 31.

Bird migration is well into its normal pattern. Lots of smaller song birds have made the move out or northern habitats. Waterfowl have their own early migrators and late migrators and others the don’t migrate at all. Dwindling food sources are the primary reason many birds from super small to very large have to leave summer nesting territories before winter sets in. They would starve to death otherwise.

Look for all kinds of migrating birds during your fall hikes. Sandpipers normally leave Iowa by Oct. 10. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are gone. Brown thrashers leave early this month as do Ruby-crowned kinglets, Golden-crowned kinglets, Cedar waxwings, Yellow-headed blackbirds, Rusty blackbirds and lots of sparrow species such as Tree, Field, White-crowned, White-throated and Eastern Fox. Be a careful observer of all things nature offers for your eyes to see.

ARCHERY RECORD BOOK TROPHY fees for the national Pope and Young Club are being adjusted effective Nov. 1. Presently the fee charged to have any North American Big Game animal entered into its prestigious and extensive network is $35. That fee goes up to $40 on Nov. 1. An examination of historical fee charges and periodic adjustments to those fees indicated it was again time to come up to speed and face reality. So if you have an archery deer that you would like to enter into P&Y, save $5 and get the job done before the end of this month.

This author is a certified P&Y measurer having obtained training in 2004. I have measured lots of deer racks for archers. And I encourage archers who want to learn more about the Pope and Young Club to visit their website. Or you can call me to visit about this conservation organization that helps support big game habitat and research endeavors in North America.

In addition, the P&Y Club has been on a multi-year plan to coordinate records and record keeping categories in alignment with Boone and Crockett Club standards. Both sets of board of directors recognize each others record entries. A category for velvet antlered animals is also being adapted where appropriate. Boone and Crockett Club animal trophy entries includes any legal method of taking. Pope and Young Club has always been focused on strictly archery taken animals. Both organizations see the need to work together and they are doing just that.

Advice from a squirrel: Look both ways before crossing a road; plan ahead; stay active; spend time in the woods; go out on a limb; it’s okay to be a little nuts.

Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at:

P.O. Box 96

Albion, IA 50005


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