Friday, August 5, 2011

How Many Apples Can a Woodchuck Chuck?

Woodchuck in Apple Tree Woodchuck Enjoying Apple

Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, live in burrows but can and do climb trees. They’re particularly fond of apples. Photographs by Corey Eilhardt

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck,
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Woodchucks don’t chuck wood, except in tongue twisters and insurance commercials.

Woodchucks (Marmota monax), also known as groundhogs or whistle pigs, are rodents, as are more than half of the world’s mammalian species. They belong to the same family as the squirrel, although woodchucks live underground and squirrels nest in trees. The English name of this common North American mammal derives from the Alogonquian wuchak.

These burrow-dwelling denizens of woodland edges and fields have been colonizing Fort Tryon Park for nearly a decade, and they have made themselves at home in the orchard below the south wall of Bonnefont garden for several years. (See a map of the animal’s range). Although they are primarily herbivorous, woodchucks do eat some grubs and insects. They subsist largely on grasses, but will also raid vegetable crops and orchards and are widely classed as agricultural pests. Since woodchucks hibernate, they need to store a considerable amount of body fat to get them through the winter.

Although I’ve been familiar with woodchucks all my life, I’d never known them to leave the ground until our summer graduate intern, Bryan Stevenson, reported seeing our resident raiding one of the apple trees early one morning. I’ve since learned that woodchucks will climb for fruit—they are especially fond of apples—or to escape predators, such as dogs and foxes.

The animals are most active early in the day or late in the afternoon. My assistant, Corey Eilhardt, who is responsible for many of the photographs on this blog, patiently waited for several days for the opportunity to catch the robber on camera. We’re not seriously concerned about our woodchuck’s depredation; the upper branches aren’t likely to support its weight and only one is apple purloined at a time. Although woodchucks are known to chew on new growth, we’ve seen no evidence of damage to our trees.

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Comments (9)

  1. Nancy Heraud Says:

    Lucky you. They do climb fences for other veggies, etc. and dig underneath as well. They can destroy a crop in a matter of minutes. Just hope you only have this one and not a family! They are cute until they start destroying your garden. Then they aren’t so cute. Fortunately we have never had one in the 21 years we have had a garden. I’ll keep my fingers crossed you just have one!

  2. Randy Jenkins Says:

    We (suburban north New Jersey) have the probably typical woodchuck-under-the-shed scenario at our residence. While I realize woodchucks can be quite destructive, ours takes second place in destruction to the deer, squirrels and, perhaps surprisingly, chipmunks. Squirrels, chipmunks and bluejays (yes, bluejays) all raid our deck garden for tomatoes right off the bush.

    I am not surprised that woodchucks are occasionally arboreal. I was amazed recently to see chipmunks climb up a juniper tree to a height of about 15′ and eat juniper berries. I thought they, too, were ground dwellers.

    Of course, medieval gardeners didn’t need to worry about woodchucks or chipmunks: both are native North American species only.

  3. Don Statham Says:

    Perhaps the Cloisters needs a communal dog. My little Ruby keeps these garden pests at bay. She has wrestled them and won on many occasions!

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hi, Nancy—

    Fortunately for us, there is a stone wall twenty-five feet tall between our woodchuck and Bonnefont Cloister. Woodchucks are a bigger problem in the Heather Garden located in Fort Tryon Park than they are for us. I’m aware of how much damage woodchucks can wreak, and that they are regularly shot on sight in agricultural contexts. Most of the information I found on their habits was included in bulletins devoted to their extermination, but the link in the post above had a few good words to say about their role in turning and enriching soil. And they do eat crabgrass and plaintain . . .

    Once mating season is over, and the kits have left the maternal burrow, woodchucks live alone. They aren’t as prolific as some rodents, and have one litter a year.

  5. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hello, Randy

    Although woodchucks will raid gardens, they subsist mostly on grasses. Our woodchucks are related to the marmots of Mongolia and Siberia, and to the mountain marmots of the Alps, but they don’t correspond to any animal in the medieval bestiary.

    I’ve never seen a chipmunk up a juniper tree, but will keep my eyes open.

  6. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Hi, Don

    A greyhound would be appropriate . . . we have no animals, alas, but I have a long wish list, including a little donkey to help me pull loads around the courtyard. I’d also like a dovecote,but the red-shouldered hawks would doubtless make short work of the doves . . .

    I hope Ruby hasn’t taken on any more porcupines . . .

    Deirdre

  7. Wanda J. Says:

    I have a family of them. They are cute. I want to deter them from coming into my yard. I thought about spraying my yard with castor oil. I found directions and a recipe online. I dont know what else would work.

  8. Eric Erb Says:

    Was this particular pest a problem for gardeners in teh middle ages? if so is there any information on how they dealt with them?

  9. gr689 Says:

    RE: to the ones that have seen a chipmunk up Juniper trees; We have plenty of chipmunks living around our home in northern Vermont, as well as squirrels and a woodchuck living under our shed in the back yard…which of course is located right under a giant apple. Not sure if this is coincidence or not, I”m thinking not, but our apple tree has only produced ‘crab’ apples in the past 10 years we’ve lived here…this is the first year that we have gotten perfect delicious huge apples and consequently this is the first year a woodchuck has taken refuge directly under that tree and shed….except he started living here at the beginning of the summer, when there weren’t any apples on the tree at all….Coincidence or does the woodchuck have a good sense where and when the trees will produce good apples?? or is he just good luck??
    Oh the CHIPMUNKS…..lol the reason I wrote this comment. Anyway, I have pictures of my chipmunks climbing up a pole as round as my pinky figure, maybe smaller, and 7-8 feet high where we perch our wild bird seeds for the birds of course…..he climbs up the pole and gets right in there and stuff his cheeks full of seeds and takes off like lightning for his nest…..but while at the top it did seem like he was posing for me to take a picture…he paused for a while and seemed to give a wink with his cheeks bulging. So, yeah they can CLIMB!!

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