By Howard Fenton, Friends of Wisdom Prairie Council
At this time of the year a lot of different kinds of families are calling Holy Wisdom home. And there’s one in particular I’d like to tell you about; the woodchuck, or the groundhog to some, or the whistle pig to others.
The woodchuck, which doesn’t actually chuck wood, or eat it, is in the Order of Rodents, a member (the largest in fact) of the squirrel family. It’s scientific name is Marmota monax. The genus name gives you a clue that the woodchuck is related to marmots, while the species name describes its monastic, or solitary lifestyle.
The woodchuck family I’m writing about lives in a den dug into the side of a sandy bank a couple of stone’s throws away from the Retreat & Guest House. Woodchuck dens are often very complex. They can range from 20-30 feet in length and are normally about 2-3 feet deep. The summer den in which young are raised (as in this case) has several entrances; a main entrance indicated by a mound of dirt around it, and a couple of escape entrances without dirt mounds (although this woodchuck has three mounded entrances).
A trail camera focused on the den area since April 30 has indicated the presence of a single adult female woodchuck and at least two young which have been seen only briefly as she carried each one from one den entrance to the main entrance. Otherwise, the young have been safely secured away in an underground nest until the time when they are big enough to begin exploring the world on their own. The male, having mated with the female, is off in his own little world.
What has been fascinating to see are the many other animals that happen by the den site. Some of these animals show little curiosity in the den, while others seem to be focused on the den site and what might be inside it.
During the day birds are the common visitors; American robins, northern cardinals, gray catbirds, mourning doves, a northern oriole, white-throated sparrows, bluejays, and turkeys. Turkeys seem to be especially drawn to the den site. Occasionally one will sit down in the sandy mound outside the main den entrance. Perhaps to take a dust bath, or to simply to enjoy the coolness of the sand on a hot day. Bluejays, singly or in groups of two or three, are also frequent visitors to the den site. It’s hard to imagine what the attraction is for them.
Other day-time visitors to the den site include mammals such as white-tailed deer, eastern gray squirrels, eastern chipmunks, and the eastern cottontail rabbits. The names of the last three mammals show that while Wisconsin is in the middle of the country, it is more closely tied to the eastern part of the country than the western.
Night-time visitors to the den site include Virginia opossums, eastern cottontail rabbits, striped skunks, northern raccoons, and a mink. This is only the second time in more than three years that a mink has been captured on camera at Holy Wisdom. It is a rare but welcomed encounter.
Woodchucks alter their environment quite a bit with all their digging and turning over of the soil. In the process they may be providing food resources for other animals. Future camera shots may provide glimpses into the life of a woodchuck and information about other animals interested in the den site and why it is so interesting to them. And all of this is very interesting to me as an observer into the natural world of Holy Wisdom Monastery which can easily go unnoticed.