groundhog day: john burroughs on a flabby beast

woodchuck from john burroughs

I HAVE LITTLE (NOTHING?) GOOD TO SAY about woodchucks, Marmota monax, even on their namesake Groundhog Day today. The only American animal with a holiday named for it simply makes me crazy by using my garden as a banquet table in any year he manages to get a foothold. My favorite nature writer, John Burroughs (1837-1921), didn’t have much use for the beasts, either—though he did name one of his Catskill Mountain houses Woodchuck Lodge.

Burroughs also wore a woodchuck coat (from which I infer that they were plentiful on his mountainside, and that he was a good shot). He wrote:

“In form and movement the woodchuck is not captivating. His body is heavy and flabby. Indeed, such a flaccid, fluid, pouchy carcass I have never before seen. It has absolutely no muscular tension or rigidity, but is as baggy and shaky as a skin filled with water.”

Not exactly complimentary; hope nobody speaks about me like that. Read Burroughs’s entire woodchuck passage from “Squirrels and Other Fur-Bearers” (1875), or download the entire book from Project Gutenberg, which also has his essays on birds; his book “In the Catskills,” and various other selected writings free of charge. (The vintage print above is from the book.)

I’ve ranted about woodchucks before, and in my early years here (on Fourth of July, not Groundhog Day) I even tried to off one. There were fireworks, indeed, when I set the roots of a tree on fire in the process. True. The woodchuck? He watched the pyrotechnics in amusement, as I recall, then trotted off to have another meal on me.

  1. Heidi says:

    oooo I also hate them. I used to think groundhogs were cute and loveable till we moved up North from Texas. It took a good year to eliminate the nest. We used a .22, some smoke bombs, and a couple of huskies.

    Also: the excerpt in that book about the flying black Mexican squirrel is hilarious!

  2. Shanti McLoughlin says:

    Interesting and made me giggle sorry Yes we dont have woodchucks here in Scotland err not that I know off anyway Well everything else uses my vegetable garden as a bistro so would have seen it by now Thanks enjoyed reading that

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Shanti. I think all the Old World marmots (or ground squirrels as these big rodents are sometimes called) are more Asia/Russia etc. in origin. I tried looking them up here to confirm. I know you have hedgehogs (not rodents, are they? our porcupines, who have spines, are rodents I think). So hard to keep track of it all…but all hilarious and interesting (and sometimes frustrating when they upend the garden!).

  3. Kaveh says:

    I have nothing good to say about these little beasts. I am however fondly reminded of a life long Californian I knew who teased me about groundhog day. “Don’t you east coasters have some sort of strange holiday where you worship a big rodent? What is that about?”.

  4. Kim Kruse says:

    You should read the book Tales From the Underground, A Natural History of Subterranean Life, by David Wolfe. It is an excellent book for gardeners, an interesting read, and might change your perspective of ground-dwelling mammals. David Wolfe is an Associate Professor of Plant Ecology in the Dept. of Horticulture at Cornell University.


    1. Margaret says:

      Sounds like a good one, Kim. I actually am fascinated by mammals (and other animals) and by the excavating abilities of groundhogs, but oh my how they fristrate me with their voracious eating. :)

  5. I share both your distaste for the woodchuck and your affection for Burroughs. Several years ago, on a road trip from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania, I decided to purposely avoid all interstates and soon found myself lost on a back road in the Catskills. After a few wrong turns and a little backtracking, lo and behold, I happened to stumble upon Woodchuck Lodge. Since I was in a wandering mood anyway, I put my journey on hold temporarily and spent the entire afternoon there just enjoying the woods and reflecting on the life of one of our greatest naturalists. What a thrill for a Burroughs fan like me and what better proof that I need to continue to seek out those roads less travelled.

  6. Judy from Kansas says:

    Glad the beasties haven’t found my garden but I think the two dogs would keep them away. Maybe Jack needs a puppy?

  7. Tricia says:

    We appear to have a kind of detente with our woodchucks, as I described in a post yesterday. It is a mystery and somewhat of a miracle, as we know exactly where at least one hole is and have seen several of them regularly over the two years we’ve lived here. They seem to prefer the grass in the lawn!!! I’m thinking of doing some sort of plant barrier this year (if we get around to it), such as Maximilian sunflowers or, ornamental onions, or even mint (in containers, of course) which I’ve read they (and the deer) will avoid. But, as always, it’s hard to predict what these determined pests will do.

  8. maude ciardi says:

    When I lived on a farm we had a dog that would kill groundhogs. The holes in the ground were awful.So it was a good thing we had the dogs. When we moved in town we also had a groundhog that ate everything , even the leaves off the sun flowers and all my cucmbers.They must be very smart because one fall they took a tarp of plastic we had in the yard and dragged it down in his hole. That winter was severly cold and snowy, so i guess he knew what he was doing!
    In the country a dog seems like a good solution to the problem, if he is a groundhog hunter!

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Maude. My cat would not appreciate a dog, but you are right: they are the best deterrent for so many animal pests in the garden. Hilarious about the tarp. i sometimes try to visualize what all is going on under the earth we stand on, you know? A whole other world.

  9. Connie says:

    Here on our small farm in PA we have plenty of groundhogs. I have an ongoing “groundhog discouragement project”. This project consists of various remedies: exposing the holes in the briar patch by trimming back the briars on sunny dry winter days (before birds build their nests), pouring used cat litter down the holes, placing cement blocks on top of the holes. My neighbor tries to “get” them with his pellet gun but he has poor aim, for which I am secretly glad. I don’t really condone killing groundhogs; I just want them to move further away from the garden!

    Re J. Burroughs – included Woodchuck Lodge on a trip up the Hudson Valley a couple years ago.

  10. Simon says:

    Just refering to Broken Barn my Hellibores are starting to flower to, here in Cheadle, (North West UK) I don’t want to stop them. Just tell them to get on with it. Bring on some colour.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Mary, and yes, of course you are right. But this one of all the wild monkeys out there really unhinges me. Always has. Such a naughty boy (girl)! Hope to see you again (if not a woodchuck). :)

  11. Sharon Laney says:

    I have 18 volumes of The Works of John Burroughs and praying I live long enough to read them all. You sense his love and wonder of all things nature in every word. I made the mistake of naming our resident woodchuck. Bob leveled my garden and I was ready to re-name him something less kind.

  12. Bill says:

    Woodchucks are the most infuriating of animals. They can destory months of work in a matter of hours. My experience has been limited to the garden. My brother and sister in-law in Pa had a family of woodchucks take up residence against the warm foundation of their house and precede to gnaw on doorsills, cedar shakes, sill plates and all things wood attached to the house. I had to see the damage to believe it!

  13. Florence W. says:

    My Dear Husband named our varmint “Oscar.” He said, “If I’m going to share my food with him, I’m going to name him!” Oscar ate all the squash, tasted the cukes and nibbled the tomatoes…which was the last straw for DH. By mid-July the raised beds were all fenced in and Oscar dined elsewhere the rest of the summer. I’m pretty sure that Oscar has been planning his 2012 attack…

    1. Margaret says:

      Oscar sounds like various woodchucks I have known, Florence, and yes, fencing! I am thinking of moveable solar-electric woven panels — like netting/fencing you can enclose an area in seasonally — investigating them.

  14. Marcy says:

    I am on my last nerve. 12 years of vegetable gardens destroyed at the very moment you expect to profit from all the work. The woodchucks have outlived one setter and three years into the next one. I have smoked bombed them. I have put fox urine,blood. various other urines red pepper, you name it.
    I have now resorted to bubble gum. Bubblicious to be exact. They seem to be really enjoying it. Every night I through a few down the hole in my corner of the area and neighbors too. They push out the empty wrappers which I collect.
    Have you heard of this tactic? How long do I need to keep it up?
    They are undermining the foundations of both my neighbors houses.

  15. Terr Snyder says:

    Ah, yes. Woodchucks. We have 6 acres, some wooded, and a very large garden. After the second year of feeding woodchucks and deer and not getting one edible vegetable, we put up 6 ft fencing around the whole perimeter of the garden. We also put chicken wire at the bottom extending out to prevent burrowing. Deer won’t step on chicken wire, by the way… That barrier has worked, but it was a great expense. Fencing isn’t cheap. Every year we make sure that the barrier is impenetrable. Last year, I don’t know how, a woodchuck got access and decimated a whole bed of my winter broccoli JUST as it was forming heads. No broccoli for the freezer this year. Not to mention all the spinach, lettuce and late tomatoes.
    Grrr. I am considering surrounding each bed with chicken wire. A fence within a fence. So frustrating. As far as all the spray-on deterrents? I think the woodchucks actually enjoy them! “Hot red pepper? Look, she’s giving us Cajun food!”

    1. margaret says:

      I agree that sprays are not much help and I save my money on those products and live-trap instead, paying then for the licensed nuisance wildlife handler here to move them a bit down the highway.

  16. Sylvia says:

    My old yellow lab is still fast enough to catch the occasional baby, but the only strategy that has worked for me works is to continually trap and release … on far side of highways, rivers, etc.

    Of course, this involves putting the furious, smelly, messy creature in the car, and then having to coax it out of the trap at the destination, risking opprobrium or even arrest if observed …
    but it’s worth it!

    1. margaret says:

      I have sent many to a new location but always with the local licensed handler’s help (I trap, he moves them). I’m in NY State, where DEC licensed people are allowed to relocate them; in MA, just 3 minutes from me across the state line, even licensed handlers are not permitted to relocate animals, and must destroy them. So it varies greatly by state (or maybe even county, I don’t know) what the law is. But I agree that I am always glad to see one move along. Hungry beasts!

  17. Chris says:

    I have good luck live trapping the younger ones earlier in the season, shifting them to nearby railway right-of-ways where there’s much land and water access. But the big older guys, they’re smart and I never get them all. (Also I welcome skunks, and they get trapped and are challenging to release.)

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