Monday, March 4, 2013

Groundhog Day

                I love Groundhogs’ Day. I enjoy the silliness of otherwise sensible people seemingly taking the prediction of a large rodent seriously.  And, although I’m not fond of small rodents, I actually find groundhogs cute. When a groundhog sits up on his haunches, front paws pulled up like a begging pup, I just melt. True, I have yet to discover their positive contribution to the environment. Unlike their smaller cousin, the squirrel, who eats the products of plants—nuts and fruits—and who actually sows seeds, the groundhog eats the plants themselves, before they mature enough to bear fruit, and never re-plants. Very destructive.
                 This Groundhogs Day Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring. A groundhog repeatedly visited our backyard last fall, and I believed he overwintered at the far end of our yard, under the stump of the black walnut tree that fell down during the microburst of 2006. I looked out our back window wondering what opinion our groundhog held.
                But I saw no sign of our woodchuck that first week of February. A snowstorm on February 8th left a white cover over all. Somewhere, shortly after it snowed, footprints appeared across the lawn, terminating by the stump. Ah ha! Chucky was awake!
                It was only when all the snow finally exposed the grass—two and a half weeks later—that I noticed a new hole near the house, where a peony plant should grow. It was just under our sunroom window. We had believed our “basement apartment” to be empty. Until  now. Had Chucky moved to the warmer quarters of the crawl space under the sunroom? Or was this a relative who had hibernated in that comfortable den?  
                “Either way,” said my husband, Adel, “he’s got to go. He can have all of the outdoors but not our house.”
                In the fall we had evicted a groundhog from that very burrow. Adel had then constructed a network of slats to cover the narrow strip of soil between the house and the driveway. Our previous tenant had riddled the area with entries and exits.  Adel pushed rocks into the new hole.  But the next day, a new hole appeared; this one, close to the walkway, removed some iris plants.
                “There’s no dirt around the hole,” said my husband. “He’s digging from inside. How’d he get in?”
                I Googled groundhogs and learned that they dig two to five pathways to their dens. They might have as much as 45 feet of tunnels that may be five feet below the surface. Could Chucky have tunneled from the far end of our property?
                Determined not to let a groundhog get the better of us, Adel began covering the square of soil by the sunroom with planks and rocks.
                “The irises and what’s left of the peony won’t be able to grow,” I protested.
                So he constructed a frame the size of the plot, stretched wire mesh over it, planted it over the dirt and rocks and weighed it down with bricks.
                “Now he’ll never get in!” declared Adel.
                But the next morning there was a new hole on the other side of the entrance steps to the sunroom in another small plot of soil.
                “That does it!” said Adel. “We’ll borrow the trap!”
                We procured a Have-A-Heart trap from our neighbors, bated it with broccoli and cabbage and, after dark positioned it by the hole, blocking it on the sides. After a full day the trap remained empty.
                Facing the driveway, there’s a small window opening from the crawl space. Once wooden bars kept intruders out. Several years of tenants had chewed and broken them, prompting my husband to staple a screen over the frame. Now we noticed that one corner of the screen had been pushed free. Our groundhog had escaped again.
                Adel added a dozen staples to the screen and we plotted to wait until evening to set the trap again.  But in the early afternoon, I looked out our kitchen window to see a groundhog calmly grazing on the lawn. I went out the front door, tiptoed down the driveway and entered the lawn from behind the groundhog. He saw me and made a beeline for the hole. I set the trap in place and framed it with bricks. Three hours later I had a prisoner. I found Chucky (or perhaps Woodchick?) to be adorable and feisty.  When I touched the handle of the trap he lunged at me, showing two prominent front teeth.
                “I don’t blame you,” I said. “But we’ll relocate you to a lovely wild area.”
                Chucky was not consoled. He repeatedly examined each corner of the trap hoping for an opening that wasn’t there. We had plans to visit our summer house in Sussex the next day, so bringing our groundhog there was an obvious solution. We moved the trap to the garage. Expecting freezing temperatures over night, we covered it with a tarp.  
                The next morning I offered our captive more food, but breakfast was not the first item on his agenda. First he re-examined every inch of the cage. Only when he had despaired of escape did he sit down to a meal.
                When Adel went to get the trap, he found another groundhog standing by the hole, looking disconsolately at the captive.
                “Oh, no! We’re splitting up a family!” I said.
                But there was only one trap. One groundhog would have to go to Sussex and the mate would have to wait. My research had informed me that groundhogs mate in March. It was March 1st. We’d definitely cut their honeymoon short. Maybe they hadn’t started a family yet. Maybe the “woodchick” was slightly pregnant. With a gestation period of 31 to 32 days, we were somewhat confident that we wouldn’t be leaving infants unattended.  After all, these two had only awakened from hibernation in the last few weeks.
                We delivered groundhog number one to a lovely wooded area near a stream which flowed into a meadow. He or she scampered off to explore. Back home, we again bated the trap and placed it by the hole after dark. By 10:00 AM the trap was still empty; groundhogs are not early risers. But when we looked at 10:30, there was a new, dejected occupant. This one was much more docile, causing us to speculate that the first may well have been a pregnant female.  We took it for a ride to a not-nearly-as-far wild area so Chucky could find a new home.
                I wish them both well while feeling guilty for being a home wreaker. Landlords are sometimes required to make perturbing decisions.