Chuck That! It Ain’t February.

I’ve been procrastinating on an article for this site for at least three months. I was going to write a brief review of a couple of ecologically-minded books; I even wrote two drafts–but, I ramble and you don’t care. Either produce content or shut up, you’re thinking. So, here ya go.

Woodchuck, groundhog, land beaver, and yes, whistlepig are all common names for the largest member of the squirrel family. This rodent, which not only has a national day set aside for it (unlike the faux holidays like Amphibian Awareness Day or Walleye Days) also has a movie named for it’s day. p14569_p_v8_ah

For the record, “The Gopher” in Caddyshack, looks more like a groundhog than a gopher. Feel free to debate me. I don’t think the filmmakers consulted an ecologist.



The groundhog or woodchuck, I refer to them by both names depending on the stage of the lunar cycle or whether it’s a leap year or not, is known as Marmota monax, which if Google Translate is to be believed, means “Woodchuck chuck.” Which if you know that old saying, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck…” seems awfully serendipitous to me or else the taxonomer had an ironic sense of humor.

As mentioned they are related to squirrels, in the sciuridae family, and are really just a large ground squirrel. They are found all over the eastern US as far south as northern Alabama and extend up into Canada further west than the US, but can even be found in Alaska. Woodch5

The name “Woodchuck” is probably a bastardization of the Algonquian wuchak.

What’s This Thing Look Like?

Woodchucks are stocky with short legs and a bushy tail. Both sexes are similar, though males are slightly larger. Their fur is brown with some white giving a grizzled appearance–but albino and black individuals can be occasionally spotted.

The forefeet have long, curved claws (“the better to dig holes with, my dear.). The teeth include chisel-like incisors. The eyes, ears, and nose are positioned on the head as to allow them to peer out of the safety of their burrow just over the edge.

From head to tail, on average they span 20-27 inches and usually don’t weigh over 14 pounds; males tend to stay in the 5-10 pound range.

These be tracks of the beast.

These be tracks of the beast.

This Land Is My Land

Woodchucks construct burrows anywhere from 8-66 feet in length with multiple exits and chambers (including one dedicated to defecation). These burrows can be found on the edge of a forest, in fields, and hedgerows, and in people’s backyards. They prefer being near open land.

As should be obvious, they have adapted well to human activity, being found near cleared land, road projects, and agricultural enterprises.

They love your lawns and gardens, people!

Muskrat Groundhog Love

They breed in late February (after their holiday, of course) or March, first beginning when they approach two years of age. Usually solitary, reproduction is one of the few times they hang out together.

Two to five kits are born in April or May with only one litter per year. The kits remain with the mother for about two months. After which time they are told to get out and get a job.

Them’s Good Eatin’

Beans, corn, peas, carrots, cucumbers, and even flowers will be sampled from your garden by the whistlepig. Clover, grass, soybeans, and alfalfa in other areas. Like their cousins, the squirrels, they can climb trees to grab an apple, pear, or nuts. And while they are generally herbivores, sometimes in the spring, before much has greened up, they will chomp on protein in the form of snakes and insects.

As a rodent, the woodchuck’s incisors continually grow. Thus they need to gnaw on wood or nuts to simultaneously sharpen and file the teeth down.

"Mom told you to keep gnawing. Now look what happened."

“Mom told you to keep gnawing. Now look what happened.”








Their diets are affected by seasonal availability, hence the need for hibernation.

Little Did They Know…

  • Elderly for a woodchuck is seven years of age. On average, in the wild they live three to six years.
  • They are active from spring to fall and begin hibernation in October where their body temperature drops from 99 degrees F to 40 and their heartbeat slows from 80 bpm to only 5.
  • Woodchucks can swim!
  • They can be found sunning themselves.
  • Most states list them as a game animal. I’ve eaten smoked woodchuck; it wasn’t bad.
  • Have you ever observed one walking? They waddle.
  • My first experience with hard cider was with Woodchuck. I used to love that stuff, now my palate has grown. It’s a bit like moving from Stroh’s or Miller to a microbrew. download (3)





You may find the woodchuck a pest as farmers, my father-in-law, and my neighbor do, but remember they are part of your neighborhood. If you can deter them from your plants, let them be a fuzzy neighbor to you.

Photo by Jaliya G. Rasaputra

Photo by Jaliya G. Rasaputra



Lastly, as you contemplate just how much wood a woodchuck could chuck if it had the ability to do so, click this link for a better verbal homage to this posting’s rodent.



A tidbit

I know I’ve been away from this blog for too long and I’m slowly working on some new content…but in the mean time I’ll post some things by others to keep the embers glowing.

Here’s some good news from the Good News Network about the kings of the lepidoptera.


Courtesy Creative Commons and the Fish and Wildlife Service

Courtesy Creative Commons and the Fish and Wildlife Service

Push and Pull

Push and Pull

(This post was actually finished two weeks ago, but due to a failing home computer I didn’t save it like I should and I had to reconstruct the whole thing.  Apologies for missing about a month-and-a-half.)

The study of geography talks about the reasons that people immigrate and emigrate (which by the way means to come into another country or leave one’s home country, respectively), the push and pull factors.  These include:

  • famine
  • war (unfortunately all too present right now)
  • debt
  • opportunity
  • running from the past

Animals have a more limited scope when they migrate.  And the strict definition for migrate includes the idea of a return.  Animals only permanently move out if habitat is destroyed or they are extirpated.

What you probably picture when you think of "migration."  (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

What you probably picture when you think of “migration.” (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Here in Michigan we think of migration in primarily terms of north and south–Canada geese, mallard ducks, songbirds, sandhill cranes, and monarchs all head for sunnier climes beginning in September.  But migration can happen in an east to west (or vice versa) cycle, up and down mountains, and even vertical movement through the water column.

Photo courtesy Nature Next Door

Photo courtesy Nature Next Door

All kinds of animals migrate (heck, even mold migrates!) from zooplankton to blue whales.


Migration for them is an “adaptive response to seasonal or geographic variation of resources.”  Or sometimes to breed.  The daylight length, temperature, or food sources have changed and so animals move on.

Those triggers–light, hormones, water currents–all give the signal to “pack up and head out.”  Cooler temperatures signal birds to migrate, for instance.

So, how do they do it?  Migrate, I mean.  Animals use topography, polarized light patterns bouncing off of airborne particles (which happens even on cloudy days), the stars, and olfactory and magnetic cues.  Rivers and coastlines are particularly helpful.  The most southern point in Canada (well, nearby Pelee Island is officially the southernmost point) is a sandy peninsula known as Point Pelee.  This helps guide birds across Lake Erie.  Why wouldn’t it?  It’s a giant directional signal pointing south.

How can you not know what direction to go?

How can you not know what direction to go? Photo courtesy Brian Kirchner




Some animals forage along the way, while others have gorged themselves and built up fat stores (hyperphagia) much like those who stay and hibernate.

Southeast Michigan sees the beginning of migration in August and continues even to this present point as I witnessed a flock of Canada geese pass over me this morning.  The little brown bats we observe wheeling the evening summer sky move from their tree roosts to caves for the winter.  The trout and salmon are migrating for breeding purposes (though their numbers are limited in SE Michigan).  Hummingbirds, sandhill cranes, and all kinds of warblers have exited the confines of the state. Out west, the elk migrate, and in northern Michigan there is a herd or four, but I don’t know that they migrate.

Before finishing this article let me include some random migration facts:

  • Humpback whales complete the longest mammal migration of up to 8,500 km each way.
  • Monarch butterflies, of course, have the longest insect migration from Canada and the northern US to California and Mexico in the fall–up to 4,750 km.

    Photo courtesy Tamya Hall

    Photo courtesy Tamya Hall

  • Rattlesnakes(!) in Alberta, Canada migrate to find dens for hibernation just slightly south of their summer grounds

As annoying as the Canada goose has become, it’s still thrilling to hear the feathery thump when they fly in their characteristic V-shaped flocks closer to the earth on the way to wherever they stay.  Occasionally, the mallards in smaller groups beat their whistling wings to find food further south.  The great blue herons will stick around, surprisingly, as long as open water exists.

So what migrates from your neighborhood?  Or perhaps you live in a winter destination?  What “new” species are just showing up?  Get outside and look around.



Eating in Your Backyard

Eating in Your Backyard

[Note: This post was started in late July/early August, but as usual, life got in the way.  Consider this a tip of the hat to the end of summer.]

High summer is here.  Most likely there are fewer flashes from fireflies and the visual dearth is replaced by a nearly-incessant daytime buzz-sawing of calling cicadas.  Not to mention the katydids making their crunchy nocturnal songs.


Regardless of the insect A/V presentations, I trust you have been outside to observe and enjoy.


You’ve probably even experienced a repast or two in your yard.

This is fancier than my backyard meals. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

This is fancier than my backyard meals. (Courtesy Creative Commons)


Has any of the food come from your garden?  Even if you don’t raise fruits and vegetables, you’re likely to find fruits and edible plants that you didn’t sow blossoming in your yard or neighborhood.


This month’s topic should be obvious at this point: wild (and semi-wild) edibles!


Let me start with the easy ones—easy because you are more than likely familiar with them presently.



Tasty, but not wild.

Tasty, but not wild.








  • Raspberries – both red and black-capped varieties can be found in backyards, on farms, and in the woods.






  • Blueberries – the wild strain are smaller (and tastier to me). I’ve not found them in yards, but along trails in more northerly latitudes.

    Courtesy Mr. Wooton--CC

    Courtesy Mr. Wooton–CC








  • Blackberries – thornier than raspberries (and too seedy for my tastes) but many people enjoy jam, pies, and alcohol made from these giants.

(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

  • Serviceberries – these grow on trees and some municipalities plant them









Forbs, i.e. herbaceous (a plant that has leaves and stems that die and return to the soil at the end of the growing season) flowering plants:


  • Dandelions – I know you have these, in not in your yard, then a neighbor’s or somewhere down the street. There isn’t even a reason to post a photo as they are unmistakable in the U.S. (and Canada).  I’ve seen the greens for sale, labeled as organic at $6 a pound!  They are bitter, but do well in soups and in a mixed salad.  But why would anyone buy them?


  • Chicory – the flower and bud are edible, but bitter. The root can (and has) be used to flavor coffee.  It’s probably growing near the road outside your home.


  • Lamb’s quarter – found in your yard and around construction sites (or any disturbed soil). The leaves are less bitter than dandelions, but shouldn’t be eaten by themselves.  Toss into something.












(Broadleaf plantain courtesty

(Broadleaf plantain courtesy




  • Plantain – not related to the relative of the banana. Again, edible leaves, easy to find, works well in a mix of other foods.




My first morels

My first morels

  • Mushroom – everyone knows mushrooms are edible. Just not which ones.  Please don’t ever eat any, unless you are sure they can be consumed.  Bad mushrooms go from bad tasting all the way to death.  Double check before putting them in your omelet.


  • Cattails – not normally found in neighborhoods unless you have some wetland present. The root is—not bitter—very akin to the taste of a cucumber.

After the flavor is gone.

(After the flavor is gone.)


This simply scratches the green surface of the many, many edible wild plants growing among us.


Try this book if you have any interest.  That’s certainly not the only one if you “hunger” for more.


Save a bit of money, increase your knowledge of the plants/food sources around you, and impress (or cause disgust) when you snack on some random plant.


The Damsel or the Dragon (with no apologies to Frank Stockton)

The Damsel or the Dragon (with no apologies to Frank Stockton)

It’s almost summer here in the northern hemisphere, though Madison Avenue says otherwise.  Many insects give the lie to that as well.  For other than the absent buzzsawing of cicadas, one might think that it was high summer in SE Michigan.

Perhaps you live in an area graced by dragonflies or what you thought were dragonflies.  Myself, I’ve only determined the difference between what I thought were small or young dragonflies and actual dragonflies for about a decade.  We’re looking at two different genuses altogether.

I’m talking about damselflies.

This is not a dragonfly  (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

This is not a dragonfly (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

The two belong to the same order–Odonta meaning “toothed-jaws” though I can’t find much evidence that either species bite people.

For those interested, both are also classified in suborders: zygoptera (damselflies) meaning “yoke-winged” and anisoptera (dragonflies) meaning “unequally-winged.”  I don’t know if the taxonomist(s) consulted St. Paul when naming them.

So, dragonflies and damselflies are similar, and can be confused for one another, but closer inspection reveals differences just like the annoying conflation that this meme clarifies.

Beekeepers hate it when someone claims to have been stung by a bee when it wasn't a bee at all.

Beekeepers hate when someone claims to have been stung by a bee when it wasn’t a bee at all.










Both species have eyes conveniently located on their heads (Gasp!  Just like us!), but dragonfly eyes touch or nearly touch at the top of the head where damselfly eyes are clearly separated on each side of their head.

Dragon eyes (courtesy creative commons)

Dragon eyes (courtesy creative commons)

damsel eyes (courtesy creative commons)

damsel eyes (courtesy creative commons)







As might be known, the dragonfly is the bodybuilder of the two suborders with a stockier thorax larger than the abdomen.  Conversely, the damselfly is long and slender with its thorax and abdomen roughly the same size.

Both fly with transparent wings (though I’ve seen damselflies with smoke-black wings) but the shapes differ.  Dragonfly wings are long and narrow and are dissimilar in pairing with the hind wings broader at the base; damselfly wing pairs are similarly shaped, but rounder than their cousins.

Speaking of wings, and an easy identifier (because, let’s face it, are you going to catch a dragonfly and declare, “Why yes, Charlotte, the wings are dissimilar in shape!”?) is wing position at rest.

After cruising some time, a dragonfly will hold its wings out horizontally at rest, resembling a plane.  Naturally, the damselfly is a contrarian and it folds its wings up vertically, perhaps like something out of the Star Wars universe.

God's Biplane (courtesy of me)

God’s Biplane (courtesy of me)

Dragonflies tend to be larger than the other fly; the largest one recorded at 20 cm (about 8 inches for the metrically challenged), but they average 3-10 cm (1-4 inches).  By now you’re expecting smaller records and averages for the zygoptera and you’d be correct.  Ten centimeters was the length of the largest damselfly, though the ones you will most likely encounter average 3-8cm (1-3 inches).

The dragonfly appears to have the damselfly “beat” in most categories.  However, an adult anisoptera only lives two to three weeks, whereas the daintier damselfly can last up to six months.

If you’re not bored by this point let me drop just a couple of more comparisons for you and send you on your way.

Dragonfly                                                           Damselfly

  • flyer                                                             percher
  • round eggs                                                  cylindrical eggs

The dragonfly can fly forward at about 100 body lengths per second (that seems wrong, doesn’t it?), backward at 3 body lengths per second, and can hover for close to a minute.

Both insects breed and live around freshwater and will eat whatever insects are available.  Both are preyed upon by birds, frogs, fish, and larger flies.

Still after more than 40 years on this planet, I find it thrilling to spot a dragonfly cruising around with more precision than even our best drones.  The almost clumsy and yet gentle flight of the damselfly evokes wonder.  The panoply of colors that abound in these too orders is likewise exhilarating.  Don’t let the seeming commonplaceness of these insects dull your sense of awe.

"Common" blue damselfly (courtesy creative commons)

“Common” blue damselfly (courtesy creative commons)

So the next time you see some iridescent flying thing that’s either too large for a bee or too slow for a fly, try to get a fix on it and tell whether its the dragon or the damsel.

And no, they can’t sew your lips shut.

“…Dragonflies draw flame…”  –Gerard Manley Hopkins



Six signs you might be travelling with a naturalist

Naturalists are a special breed of people.  While many of us easily miss the signs of life happening in the ecosystems we’re in and around, these people catch it all.

"Bug Camp" on Fletcher Creek

“Bug Camp” on Fletcher Creek

If you find yourself in a vehicle with one, see if these observations don’t ring true:

1) You find among the trash and dirt on the floor of the vehicle snake skin, sea shells, and river and beach rocks.

2) She keeps trying to identify tree species at 55-70 miles per hour.

3) His attention drifts from the road to the raptor soaring near the highway

4) She calls out the scientific name of the road kill you just passed.

5) He starts grumbling about the invasive plant species he can see when he parks the car.

6) Along with the ketchup packets and napkins, you find field guides, bird calls, and binoculars in the glove compartment.

What have you found when riding with a naturalist?

Sound + Vision of Spring

Sound + Vision of Spring

T. S. Eliot wrote in The Wasteland, that “April is the cruellest month, breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain.”

T.S. Eliot "Spring foe"?

T.S. Eliot “Spring foe”?

Obviously, never having visited Michigan (he was born and raised in St. Louis, MO) he continues, “Winter kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.”  He’s been dead for 50 years and didn’t have to contend with this year’s February (see last month’s post).

That’s all behind us now, at least in this corner of Michigan and much of the Midwest.  Plants are beginning to sprout, maple syrup season is over, and even the occasional insect can be spotted.

Usually people in Michigan identify the American robin (turdus migratorius–what an unfortunate appellation)

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

with the arrival of spring.  Not only does Michigan lose points for making our state bird one that Wisconsin and Connecticut also claim (the northern cardinal appears to be the most popular state bird), but not all robins leave the state in the fall.  Some stay around, somehow managing to find food through the winter.

There has been a movement over the last few decades to make the Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii), a bird that only breeds in northern lower Michigan, the state bird, but too many people complain that politicians ought to find better things to do with their time than designate state animals, rocks, and books.

Kirtland's warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

Kirtland’s warbler image courtesy of Creative Commons

So, for now, we’re stuck with the ordinary robin.

For me, though, the harbinger of spring is the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus).  Yes, it’s a common enough sight and sound in wetlands (even saltwater marshes) around the country, but they aren’t found in Michigan in winter.

Unlike the lazy robin, they hightail it south for open water and abundant food.  Well, not too far south, some are found year round in Ohio.

Some of the more sophisticated birds like to winter in Mexico.  The ones who can afford it, do, I suppose.

If you’re not sure what one looks like, all you need to do to spot the male is to look for a black bird, not quite as large as a blue jay, but certainly larger than a sparrow.  OK, I guess they are robin-sized.

But this isn’t one:

This non-native (image) is courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

Image courtesy of Creative Commons and Torange.US

This bastard The starling isn’t even native to North America, thanks to a Shakespeare lover it was introduced in Central Park in New York in the 19th century and now they gobble up native birds’ food.

This black bird is also not red-winged, but it is native:

Grackle image courtesy of

Grackle image courtesy of

The common grackle is larger than the red-winged blackbird and is widespread as well.



The red-winged blackbird is as it’s name claims, a black bird with a scarlet and yellow shoulder patch on it’s wings.  That’s the male, anyway.  The female is brown and has field markings similar to a song sparrow.

Besides the instant sunshine the bird brings with its appearance, is the varied musical call the male sings.

Watch this beautifully shot short video by Lang Elliot:

I don’t know about you, but that bird’s call is magical to me and instantly brings spring to mind.

Lastly, spring is also here when the ground is brown, bare, and soggy, yet it smells of “the dearest freshness deep down things” to quote my favorite Jesuit poet.  There’s that earthy smell that is heaved into my nostrils.  And it’s not a bad smell at all.

I can throw the windows open, blow out winter’s dust, and thrill to the call of boy blackbirds and smell the fecund earth.

What’s spring like in your neighborhood?