What’s in your backyard: engineering groundhogs
By DAVID WASMUTH
For Montclair Local
In “What’s in Your Backyard,” Sanford Sorkin and David Wasmuth will alternate writing about the birds and beasts you may see around your house. Wasmuth is a local environmentalist and amateur naturalist. He is a Rutgers Environmental Steward and the founder of the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project. Seen a bird or animal you want to know more about? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Imagine spring in Montclair.
The peas are coming up nicely, and this year’s lettuce is beautiful. Satisfied, you turn your back on the garden for a few hours.
When you look again, the peas vines have been chomped through at the base, and all that remains of the lettuce are a few forlorn stems.
Welcome to the world of vegetable gardening in Montclair — a prime groundhog habitat!
Those plump, cuddly-looking giant rodents — they weigh up to 15 pounds – have adapted well to suburbia. Since they are active in daytime, we often see them munching on vegetation on roadsides and in public parks.
Their mainly vegetarian diet averages about a pound and a half of food a day, so even occasional visits to your vegetable beds can take a heavy toll. Feeding accelerates in the late summer as they fatten up for winter, but any surviving vegetables should get a break by late October, when groundhogs go into hibernation.
The destruction in your garden may seem like the work of an army, but in fact groundhogs are territorial, and the maximum social group of adults is three – one male and two females, with the male’s territory overlapping those of the females.
But even if just one or two are dining on your vegetables, that pound and a half per groundhog per day adds up. Fortunately, it’s not all from your garden; most of the groundhog’s diet consists of grass, clover and leaves of shrubs and trees.
A groundhog’s territory varies in size with available resources. On average, it might be roughly the size of a football field, but in an especially rich and predator-free food environment (Montclair?) it could be as little as 20 yards.
Montclair groundhogs seem oddly nonchalant as they waddle up driveways and browse in open spaces. Such a plump and slow-moving target seems like it should be irresistibly tempting to predators, but few local predators are capable of taking down such hefty prey.
Adult groundhogs are too big for hawks, most dogs are leashed, and foxes are just beginning to make their presence felt in town.
Although it may appear carefree as it makes its rounds, a groundhog is highly attuned to its surroundings. Before emerging from its burrow, it pokes its head out and checks carefully for sights, sounds and smells. While feeding, it pauses every few seconds to gauge the surroundings, ready to scurry for cover at any sign of danger – up a tree if necessary or down a burrow hole if possible.
The burrow is an engineering feat. Up to 3 feet deep and 50 feet long, it has two entrances, escape holes for emergencies and various chambers, including a regularly cleaned-out bathroom. Abandoned burrows provide shelter for other wildlife, including skunks, possums and even that groundhog archenemy, the fox.
Groundhogs are most famous, of course, for Groundhog Day, their annual chance to dominate the news cycle and bite unwary politicians. While their meteorological talents are debatable, the holiday has some factual basis, since in late winter male groundhogs awake from hibernation, emerging from their burrows in search of mates.
Between fights with other roving males, they make their rounds of still-hibernating females’ burrows. The female is choosy about suitors and, one imagines, not thrilled to be awakened from her months-long sleep by uninvited gentlemen callers. If she does decide it’s a match, a honeymoon of cohabitation begins, lasting for about a month until, ready to give birth, she sends the guy packing.
Litters of around four are born in mid-spring, and weaning takes about six weeks. By early June, the young are ready to make their own way in the world, which means finding and establishing territories. This is the most vulnerable time of their lives, when they often fall victim to cars or predators.
Although fierce fighters among themselves, especially when establishing territory, groundhogs are not aggressive toward people.
However, as then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg learned on Groundhog Day 2009, they will bite if you get too close and personal. With groundhogs, as with all wild animals, keep your distance. Definitely don’t try to handle them, no matter how cuddly they seem.
As for your vegetable garden, there are no easy solutions. A fence provides some discouragement to a lazy groundhog, but they are expert diggers and fair climbers, so a determined one will find ways under or over.
A barrier such as chicken wire buried a foot deep at the foot of the fence may discourage groundhogs from burrowing under; it helps if the top of the fence and the bottom of the underground barrier are inclined outward. If there is an active groundhog near your vegetable beds, you will want to encourage the occupant to vacate.
The Farmers’ Almanac suggests placing materials with scents they find offensive in or around the entrances. Possibilities include Epsom salts, castor oil, cayenne pepper, soiled kitty litter (smells like a predator) and human hair clippings (sorry, humans, we don’t smell good to groundhogs). Spraying plants with a solution of cayenne offers some protection, as does planting aromatic herbs, such as mint, oregano or lavender.
Like them or not, groundhogs have found a comfortable home in Montclair and are here to stay. In the meantime, we can contemplate their adorable demeanor and engineering prowess. And, perhaps, wish for more foxes.