Groundhogs: Facts, frustration, and reflection

The persistent groundhog has garnered an honored place in American folklore. In Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a revered, oracular woodchuck is annually paraded about in the dead of winter to foretell the coming of spring. A spry woodchuck feasting on a windfall apple adorns a Vermont hard cider company’s logo. For generations, children have pondered the conundrum, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” The classic movie “Caddyshack satirizes man’s feeble, often comical battles with the creature. Regarding this classic man versus nature conflict, Caddyshack’s legendary groundskeeper Carl Spackler explains of his arch-nemesis that “To kill, you must know your enemy, and in this case my enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will never quit — ever. They’re like the Viet Cong — Varmint Cong. So you have to fall back on superior intelligence and superior firepower. And that’s all she wrote.”

But the groundhog is no laughing matter, and as summer heats up, they are once again upon Ohio farm fields and barnyards in droves.

Early summer finds groundhog numbers at their highest levels of the year. Plump, waddling whistle pigs — so nicknamed for the defensive, trill whistle they will give when disturbed or threatened — gorge themselves on farmers’ crops and undermine old outbuildings as they excavate tunnels into and out of their extensive underground palaces. Weighing up to 12 pounds and consuming up to 1.5 pounds of food daily, they bask in the sun, nibbling away at crop profits, ready to scamper deep into the burrow at the faintest threat of peril.

Folks grit their teeth and diligently try all manners and methods to rid the farm of these pesky varmints that carve out bunker systems along fencerows and under barns. Some try to flood and smoke them out of their enclaves; live traps are set out; landowners are quick to draw a shotgun bead or focus a rifle scope on any woodchuck caught unawares too far from its burrow.

And indeed, shooting the pests can be invigorating. Contemporary writer and small game hunting enthusiast David Bruzina says visceral impulses are awakened by varmint shooting.

Enjoying the challenge of precision marksmanship, Bruzina suggests using a high-velocity varmint rifle to exterminate the pests.

“Bang one with a high-velocity 22-250 AI and a 55 grain vmax round and watch the explosion,” Bruzina said. “Shooting varmints is just pure infant joy — boom smack spatter.”

Many can concur with that sentiment. And, thus, with persistence, an individual can eradicate these buck-toothed rodents from his properties. Kill enough young-of-the-year naively exploring the world outside of their nest and send that old matriarch or granddaddy gopher rolling with a heavy blast of shot, and you may well enjoy a groundhog-free summer on your farm.

But, the problem is that the whistle pig is a prolific and resilient critter. Females of reproductive age birth two to six young every April. And at two months of age, these youngsters disperse in search of their own territories. Thus, outbuildings and fence lines liberated one summer from the clutches of these varmints will be re-inhabited the next year by newcomers ready to fill the empty gap that was so proudly created during the previous war on the woodchuck.

For this reason, many landowners in the state can commiserate with the sentiments of Henry David Thoreau. While conducting his agrarian experiment in self-sufficiency at Walden Pond, the 19th century American nature writer expressed his frustration that of the 2.5 acres of beans he planted for himself, “my enemies…woodchucks have nibbled me a quarter of an acre clean,” leading him to later assert that after seeing one of these marmots steal across his path, he “felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw.”

Rural dweller can chase him until they’re mad, but his head will inevitably pop out of the ground again, like a real world version of the arcade game “Whack-A-Mole.”  Thus, though hated for his destructive, consumptive ways, the lowly groundhog must nonetheless be granted a grudging respect for his adaptive ability to survive and thrive in a world antagonistic to his existence.

Truth be told, when personified, the groundhog possesses qualities all people protective of hearth and heritage hold dear. This animal is a homebody mostly interested in the protection of its young and the perpetuation of its kind on its own home turf. Embodying conservative American values with its lifestyle and burrow design, the woodchuck is a highly defensive and domestic creature.

Indeed, the groundhog’s domestic nature and impressive burrowing habits make its elimination difficult. A well-established den can contain up to eight to 12 entrances. These entrances can be five feet deep and extend 30 feet or more. Once inside these permanent, elaborate dens, there are several separate rooms: sleeping rooms, a hibernation room, defecation rooms (which are routinely cleaned), and one or two emergency escape tunnels. And while the territory of a woodchuck is typically no more than three acres, the labyrinthine burrows that it inhabits, and its keen awareness of outside threats, helps it to flourish in Ohio’s agricultural landscape.

Capturing the essence and image of a groundhog standing outside of its den on a rounded hill, famed poet Robert Frost shows his readership that this lowland marmot has something to teach humankind about self-preservation. In Frost’s poem “A Drumlin Woodchuck,” the resilient, resourceful groundhog narrates to its beloved that “I can with confidence say/That still for another day,/Or even another year,/I will be there for you, my dear/It will be because, though small/As measured by the All/I have been so remarkably thorough/About my crevice and my burrow.”

Another little appreciated fact about the groundhog is that it can indeed be enjoyed as table fare. The dark, tender, mild flavored meat can be prepared using any of your favorite rabbit or small game recipes (after all, woodchucks are a member of the squirrel family) after a few important processing tips are followed.

Upon harvest, gut and skin the groundhog, making sure to clean out its body cavity. It is important to trim away all excess fat from the carcass, and be certain to remove the seven to nine scent glands from under the forearms and small of its back. Then, soak the carcass in salt water for 24 hours. As a general rule, younger, smaller woodchucks make for better eating.

For those considering an experiment with woodchuck as food source, David Bruzina suggests a very utilitarian small game recipe he uses for cooking squirrel. After quartering the meat, simply “stew ‘em or parboil them in broth until tender, then bread and chicken fry them,” Bruzina said.

Such a dish might be the only enjoyment and tenderness many can ever derive from this perennially tough old adversary, the wily woodchuck.

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3 comments

  1. loved this article! interesting, informational, and fun! I learned a lot (8-12 entrances and family oriented- who knew??) and I enjoyed the quotes- especially Frost ‘s poem ! add in Thoreau’s thoughts and it’s obvious that the woodchuck has been a revered adversary for a long time!

  2. Terrific article–once again–by Mike Ryan, who knows his ordinance and his literature!

  3. Although ground hogs are a pest, I am tired of being turned down by farmers. I have knocked on doors in Richland county and have been denied access 100%.
    We need a list of contacts that will allow varmint hunting.

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