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Shadow of Itself

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

Early in August, as we walked along the trail to the cave at Graham Cave State Park, I read to my husband from the park's brochure.

"American Indians used the cave as a shelter starting about 10,000 years ago. The cave's modern history began when Dr. Robert Graham took out a land patent on the site in 1847. His son used the cave to keep hogs."

As we reached the end of the trail, I looked up to see a different kind of hog, a groundhog.

Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks. It's easy to understand why people might call them groundhogs. The animals spend much of their time in underground burrows and, of course, they eat like proverbial hogs.

How they came to be called woodchucks is not as clear. One source says the name stems from a Choctaw Indian word, shukka, which means hog. Another says that woodchuck is an anglicized version of the Algonquin wejack. Still others say that groundhogs originally dwelled exclusively in the woods and that "chuck" is a word people used for piglets, hence woodchuck.

Groundhog or woodchuck, its scientific name is Marmota monax. The species is related to the marmots of the Rockies and to squirrels. In fact, a groundhog looks a lot like a squirrel, only heavier. Adults can weigh up to 14 pounds.

"An adult groundhog, especially in the fall, can be a large animal," said Bill Heatherly, wildlife programs supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "People should stay clear of them because they can put up a pretty good fight."

Nevertheless, groundhogs lose many fights, falling victim to large predators like bobcats, coyotes, dogs and humans. Avoidance is their best defense. At the first sign of trouble, they run to their burrows. If cut off, they can be inventive escapists, even to the point of climbing trees.

Groundhogs also can swim, but they don't make a habit of it.

Primarily vegetarians, groundhogs eat leaves, flowers and grasses. Their favorite foods include wild lettuce, red and white clover, grasses and sweet clover.

Groundhogs are opportunistic feeders, however, and will also eat grubs, grasshoppers, bugs, snails and small animals. They'll even eat roadkill on occasion. Sometimes they chew tree bark. Could this be the wood the woodchuck chucks?

Their appetite for vegetables and flowers makes groundhogs the enemy of home gardeners. They alienate other folks by digging into and damaging levees and dams.

"They're destructive, all right," agreed George Hempen, a landowner in Jasper

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