Whistle-pigs seem like such unassuming, innocuous animals to threaten my environmental bona fides. My husband noticed the pair of groundhogs, each about a foot-and-a-half long by half-a-foot wide, as they ambled across our backyard a half block from Packard and Stadium. Looking like overgrown squirrels with short tails, we assumed they were just transiting through. Lots of animals do.
The area behind our backyard used to be the U-M Botanical Gardens before becoming a townhouse/apartment complex. Now a fifteen-foot fringe of shrubs and junk trees separate it from the houses on Iroquois Pl. It’s exactly the kind of environment that nature lovers admire, because it provides a contiguous corridor for wildlife.
The next time we saw one of our short and stout visitors, however, it was exiting from underneath our screened-in porch. Temporary residents we were OK with; permanent house-guests were another matter. We consulted that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, to discover our interloper was a Marmota monax aka groundhog aka woodchuck aka whistle-pig. That last moniker became self-evident when an accidental meeting evinced a high-pitched squeal (from the animal, not my husband).
About the same time, I was excited to interview Mary Mathias, who was leading a drive to certify Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County as wildlife communities with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). The city was very close to meeting the requirements–179 of the needed 200 residences, plus eight schools, two parks/nature areas, two churches, two farms, and eight businesses registered with NWF–to become only the second town thus certified in Michigan. Participants need only provide sources for food, water, cover, and places for wildlife to raise their young.
I believe in NWF’s vision and in the value of biodiversity. A healthy, functioning ecosystem is beneficial for people as well as wildlife. That means making my environment beneficial to wildlife. But once I provide food, water, and cover, and preschool, should I decide that only the most convenient animals are welcome?
My pro-wildlife stance wasn’t just a theoretical concept. After all, we’d welcomed the mallard couple that claimed our winterized pool for their love nest. With the black pool liner sagging under snowmelt and covered in fallen leaves, it’s understandable that they mistook it for a pond. We spent a lot of time watching them paddle around their new home. One morning our son called us to view new and strange behavior as two drakes battled across our concrete pond; it took several minutes to notice the submerged hen beneath both males intent on procreating. Nothing like a little wildlife action to supplement “the Talk” and fifth-grade health lessons.
We assumed, mistakenly, that once the pool cover was removed and chlorine added, the ducks would relocate to a more family-friendly locale. Apparently eau de chlorine didn’t bother them, nor did us running around the pool trying to drive them off. Each family member developed a duck deterrent tactic: I swung the pool-cleaning net in their general direction; our son targeted them with his Super Soaker; and my husband called for me to take care of it. We weren’t being unfriendly, we just didn’t think it was a healthy environment for them. It took three seasons to finally convince the mallard pair to permanently relocate.
There was other wildlife transiting from the townhouses. A troop of MBA students exhibited loud and extended courting behavior after football games; we were particularly pleased when that group of Michigania fanaticus graduated and migrated away. A skunk was also a semi-regular visitor. While occasionally seen, he (or she) more regularly announced his presence with a lingering odor that greeted us upon awakening. We also watched but failed to make friendly contact with the raccoon or two that wandered through periodically. We referred one very strangely behaving raccoon to animal control (it turned out it had distemper). Then there was the squirrel that repeatedly tried to join the family, chittering at us as it pushed on the window screens year after year, seemingly intent on getting inside. Overall we enjoyed our wildlife sightings–our son regularly called us to the window to catch sight of the bright red of cardinals or the shiny pelt and surprisingly graceful gait of the groundhog–before we thought it was staying.
Apparently our porch’s nether regions met the hibernation requirements of a discerning whistle-pig. Unlike bears, I learned, groundhogs are true hibernators. Their body temperature drops as low as 40*F while their hearts beat only about five times a minute. Even though they cycle in and out of more alert periods, our guest should stay underground and not bother us from mid-November through February.
I wasn’t concerned about the groundhog’s presence so much as its engineering skills. Its multi-level burrow can be five feet deep and up to sixty feet long with separate summer quarters, hibernation areas, and pooping tunnels. While one can only admire its bathroom decorum, a groundhog’s value in turning and fertilizing the soil was less compelling than its potential to damage the house’s foundation.
So that’s our wildlife conundrum. As I discovered, being wildlife friendly means that animals, even those not targeted with an invite, might want to actually move in. Come spring, we’ll call the landlady.