Nature Nearby: A hillside architect

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

BY FRED SEITZ —

BY FRED SEITZ —

Walk along the bike path next to the Northwest Branch and you may notice a pair of conspicuous holes in an adjacent hill. Between the holes there is a faint path marked by worn grass and obscured by recent rains. While the path’s traveller has not shown himself during the several times I have passed, his workmanship is typical of one of our most common local mammals, the woodchuck, aka groundhog, whistle pig, wood pig, eastern marmot, and to some — furry nuisance. The last of these nicknames may be attributed to the woodchuck’s tendency to nibble in gardens. He is fond of broccoli, carrots and other vegetables.

While I have not spoken with neighbors to determine if their gardens were raided, the location of the holes (and there may be more that I have not yet seen) suggest that much of his feeding is on the grass on the hill and adjacent areas. Weighing from five to 14 pounds and measuring up to 24 inches in length, he has a short tail and short feet. Woodchucks are quite the diggers, and their tunnels will usually have a number of small chambers off of them and may also connect to other woodchuck burrows in the area. A very involved set of burrows existed over in Bladensburg a few years back. The builders of those dens were often very visible along the roadway.

Woodchucks are alleged to be great meteorologists, predicting whether winter will continue or spring is rapidly approaching. This attribute was ascribed to the woodchuck, not by Native American folktales, but rather by early Pennsylvania Dutch settlers. Not finding the badger (another digger that they believed could predict weather) in the New World, the German settlers attributed the ability to this small chubby digger. The woodchuck is a rare presence in Native American lore, with the exception of an Abenaki tale of Grandmother Woodchuck whose son stole tobacco from a grasshopper magician.

While I continue to look for the path’s traveller, the only signs of tobacco are a few cigarette butts along the towpath. It is possible that his offspring may be emerging from the holes in July or early August. Mating occurs in late April or early May, and, if successful, two to nine offspring (four is most common) can be expected.

My quasi-fierce dog has on several occasions visited the holes but has been prohibited from digging at them. This is not only to protect the builder or any youngins, but also because the builder may have already been evicted by other locals who will become squatters and may be a threat to Quasi Fierce. Notable among potential squatters are the beautiful, but spray­filled, skunk or the more innocuous whitetail rabbit.

So while our local architect may not bring tobacco and may be lousy at predicting weather, he has engineered a structure that may be (or is) used by some of our other nearby neighbors. At least, he may offer us a glimpse of his own stocky­-but-­cute form and perhaps grace us with the pitter-­patter of his offspring’s paws.