The Babyhood of Wild Beasts/Chapter 9

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IT was a gala occasion, that bright spring day in early May, when Papa and Mamma Woodchuck took their four toddling babies out of the nest and up the long, dark tunnel to inspect the beautiful green world. The little fellows clung timidly to their mother's brown fur coat.

The journey was so exciting they stopped every few minutes to inspect their surroundings and catch their breath. Their little hearts were beating madly with the excitement of the journey.

When they emerged into the bright spring sunshine, they blinked their brown eyes and opened their small, fur-muffled ears to catch the wonderful sights and sounds of the beautiful fairyland they had just tumbled into.

The singing birds and droning insects made sweet music for the little 'chucks; and I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that old Robin Redbreast whistled his prettiest that day, all for the enjoyment of the new babies. It wasn't long, anyway, before the youngsters could whistle back at him; for whistling is one of Fatty Woodchuck's best accomplishments. Eating and sleeping would run the whistle a close second, for I know of no animal (not including a growing boy) that can outstrip this canny old marmot at those two most enjoyable pastimes.

Mother Woodchuck led the babies down to the spring where the new plantain was just peeping out all green and tender. It seemed to them that life just couldn't contain anything else half so delicious. They nibbled the new grass and took a big drink at the old spring.

Father Woodchuck was sitting on his haunches in front of the burrow, keeping a sharp lookout during their little excursion. Had anything happened that would alarm him for their safety, he would have blown a low whistle through his butter-coloured teeth and had his whole family tumbling into the den in a jiffy. However, nothing looked very dangerous, so the little 'chucks played to their hearts' fill in the warm yellow sunlight. Then they crawled back into their snug, under-ground home, so tired they could scarcely drag their fat, brown bodies along. How cosy the nest was, and what a lovely place to sleep in!

During those soft warm days the little fellows grew with amazing rapidity. They increased in size and strength and developed their accomplishments to such an extent that it was truly amazing. They were as playful as kittens. They rolled, wrestled and tumbled about for hours at a time, developing their muscles and strengthening themselves mentally and physically for the battle of life.

It wasn't long before they dug little play houses. The digging developed their powerful claws, and strong legs and paws. Their toes are partially webbed and they make fine shovels for the purpose of shovelling the dust while burrowing. They stop, back out, during their work and kick the dust back vigorously until they have swept all the dirt to the entrance of the hole and have sent it flying outward. Our Woodchucks shut their furry ears so tight that they are dust-proof while tun- nelling. This is a great advantage, for no dirt or dust can enter to impair their remarkable hearing. No animal that I know of has a finer sense of hearing than the Woodchuck.

Day by day the babies grew and fattened. Old Farmer Hays had the best lettuce for miles around and, as all farmers know, that is the most tempting morsel to excite a Woodchuck's appetite. After the sun sank low and its red fire had burnt itself out in the west, and the still white moon had crept up over the pines like a wraith and sailed away on a silver trail straight through the blue of the heavens, our waddling Woodchucks crept forth by the light of the white moon's lantern, and scuddled under the ferns straight for that luring lettuce patch. The farmer got mad and swore vengeance, but it didn't do any good. They went back again the next night and ate more.

Father Woodchuck had a presentiment that something was going to happen, so he crawled out one morning at the break of day and sat on his haunches on the highest knoll in the vicinity. He espied the farmer busily engaged in a new occupation. It had to do with chains and stakes and things. After the man had gone, he crawled, with his belly close to the ground, and investigated. An awful thing with yawning jaws met his gaze. Old 'Chuck knew it was a trap. He ran home as fast as his short legs would carry him and told the news. They gave the lettuce patch a wide berth after that.

They had timothy and clover for supper that night. In a few days they ventured into the farmer's garden again, but not for lettuce. They munched the young beets and cabbage and found them delicious. Green peas, celery and other "garden sass" gave variety to their diet and they fattened rapidly. It's a most desirable thing for a 'chuck to put on all the fat he can during the summer, for he hibernates (goes to sleep) during the fall and winter. So he needs the fat to nourish him during his long sleep. The drowsiness overtakes him the first of October, he sleeps through the cold weather and opens his eyes in the early spring. The saying goes that he crawls out on Ground Hog's day, and if he sees his shadow, he slinks back into his hole and sleeps for another six weeks, but I will not vouch for that story.

Our friend, the Woodchuck, is the most delightful pet that can be imagined. He's gentle and loving and is easily tamed. He certainly isn't much trouble. I know a boy who has one for a pet. When the little chap hibernates, he usually goes into the cellar and seeks a dark corner for his long sleep. The boy would get curious and bring his pet upstairs into the bright light and try to arouse him, but it was no use. He "slept the sleep of the just," and nothing short of an earthquake could have awakened him. I wonder why boys ever want to kill Woodchucks? They are the most harmless and interesting animals I know. It's so much more enjoyable to tame one and have the pleasure of knowing him. Believe me, if you knew a Woodchuck, you would never want to take his life. He certainly is worth-while, and is a delightful companion.

He is reddish-brown in colour, shaded to yellowish, with brownish black feet and tail. He is so cunning when he sits upright, with his little hands drooping in front of him. He sits on his

haunches when he eats and takes his food in his hands and nibbles it. He belongs to the rodent (gnawers) family. When full-grown, he will weigh from eight to twelve pounds. He is about one-half the size of the porcupine.

He now takes a wife and establishes a home of his own. They choose a sunny hillside for their house. After tunnelling downward to allow for proper drainage, they begin tunnelling upward until they are about three feet below the surface. This tunnel runs about twenty-five feet in length, at the end of which is the living room. The Woodchuck's little bride brings soft grasses to line their little nest, and, presto, they have a home fit for a king. The Woodchuck is a native of New England. He is found in the United States and Canada. He is first cousin to the prairie dog, but does not live in colonies, but in pairs, as a respectable married couple should live.

The Woodchuck's children are four or five in number. They are well-behaved youngsters and develop the art of taking life easy at an early age. Mr. 'Chuck doesn't exert himself too much. He usually saves himself the trouble of making a home, by occupying the abandoned burrow of some friend or ancestor. Sometimes he ensconces himself in a good, old-fashioned stone wall, from which point of vantage, he can keep his weather eye on the farmer and his ever-suspicious dog.

So, we'll say "Good-bye" to our little furry friend and wish him a prosperous summer with plenty of greens and plantain, a bountiful store of fat with which to meet the cold, hard winter, and the long, beautiful, dreamless sleep, from which we hope he will awaken, refreshed, and rejuvenated, ready and eager to resume the "Battle of Life."