Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Little Love for Woodchucks: the Case of the Naturalist’s Coat

By: Douglas Kendall, Curator of Collections

This morning the thermometer at my office read 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit at 8 AM. It’s hard to remember that we observe Groundhog Day next week in the hopes that Punxsutawney Phil, Wiarton Willy or any number of other competing rodents will usher in an early spring by failing to see their shadows.

Marmota monax standing Photo: April King, used by permission under the GNU Free Documentation License.

A handful of celebrity groundhogs bask in their brief moment in the spotlight (but not the sun, the observers sincerely hope each year), but their species doesn’t generally get a lot of love from humans the rest of the year. Also known as woodchucks, the Marmota monax are found from Alabama to Alaska and are very common here in the Northeastern United States. They will eat grubs, grasshoppers and wild grasses, but in my personal experience they especially love garden vegetables.

John Burroughs at Edison’s House. Photo: Hunt, Fort Myers, Florida, 1914. This image is in the public domain.

The great American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) named one of his homes Woodchuck Lodge, but it apparently wasn’t due to his fondness for the creatures. Rather, when Burroughs built a cabin on land purchased for him in Roxbury, New York by Henry Ford in 1913, he found the land already inhabited by a large population of woodchucks. Though in his 80s when he lived at Woodchuck Lodge, Burroughs was still a crack shot. One visitor wrote in his diary just a year before Burroughs passed away, “before standing for the picture, he called my attention to a fur coat made entirely of woodchuck skins. Mr. B. despite he is 84 years old, is a good marksman and said that last year he killed more than 100 woodchucks and nearly as many this season. He hastened to add that the woodchuck was the only animal he will shoot. He declared them a nuisance about the place." (see here for more on the naturalist’s thoughts on Marmota monax)

Coat. (N0200.1993) Woodchuck-fur, 1913-1920. Museum Purchase. Photo: Douglas Kendall.

Woodchuck-fur coats are not common and the one owned by John Burroughs now resides in the collections of the Fenimore Art Museum. It looks as if it would help keep one warm on cold January mornings. If we take the coat outside next Wednesday and it casts no shadow, I wonder whether spring will come sooner. We can only hope…

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