Groundhogs

Photo copyright Mike Lubchenko

Spring is the season of impatient expectation while summer brings all we’d been longing for. Although Autumn may stir up bittersweet nostalgia, it also holds a queue of festivities that soften our journey to year’s end. The sweet distraction of shopping and cooking, traveling and eating, decorating and wrapping, family and friends comes to a crescendo at midnight on New Years’ Eve. Then we face a long, slow slog until spring… It’s enough to make one burrow under the feather duvet and dream the time away.

Some of our mammalian cousins do just that. The stout and sturdy Woodchuck, or Groundhog (Marmota monax) retires from the grassy edges of Somers parkways, meadows and backyards into his or her underground den, seals the sleeping chamber with dirt, and lays down for a long winter’s nap. Woodchucks are true hibernators, which means that their body temperature lowers, their breathing, heartbeat and metabolism slow, and they burn stores of body fat for energy. In early spring they emerge from their dens and we enjoy pretending they can forecast the end of winter.

Since every living thing constantly burns energy, evolution has come up with many efficient strategies for matching animals’ needs to food availability. The primary purpose of hibernation is to get the Woodchuck safely through a season of food scarcity. Other animals migrate from place to place, following the food supply. Some of the birds you see at your feeder in the winter have come down from the North where they reside in the warmer months. Even during spring and summer, some birds burn so much energy each day that at night they enter a slowed state similar to hibernation called torpor.

Modern humans, with our warm houses, refrigerators and pantries full of food have developed other strategies to deal with the winter cold: some of us run off to Florida, while others don snowshoes and skis and enjoy what the season has to offer.

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