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How much food could a woodchuck make?

Piquant ponderings on Groundhog Day



Punxsutawney Phil, don't stand down now.

Or, given today is Groundhog Day and this is a Canadian newsmagazine, maybe that caution should go out to Wiarton Willie, of Wiarton, Ontario; Shubenacadie Sam of Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia; Brandon Bob in Manitoba, and the other groundhogs we seldom hear about that are popping up like whack-a-moles.

All these folksily named critters are groundhogs or, more accurately, marmota monax, also known as woodchucks.

And every February 2, when we're pretty much bored out of our gourds with winter and need cheering up — and tourism dollars, cynics might add — they're the main attraction as we wonder, will he or won't he see his shadow? (Note that they're always male, these groundhog stars.)

If it's sunny and Mr. Groundhog's shadow appears, we're in for more cold, wintery weather. Six weeks of it, to be precise, according to the old Pennsylvania German custom that revolves around Phil's hometown of Punxsutawney, Ground Zero for Groundhog Day, where tens of thousands of people gather each year to mark the event.

No shadows seen? Then the weather is mild, signaling spring is on its welcome way. And Phil or Willie pops back into his hole, regardless, but just to quickly clean up the breakfast dishes or something.

It struck me when I saw a photo of a nice big marmota monax that they look pretty tasty.

I mean, they eat a better diet than most animals that turn into production meat and end up on dinner plates. According to Walker's Mammals of the World, one of the finest guides to our fellow animals I've seen, they live on lots of green vegetation, especially grasses, rounded out with fruits, grains, legumes and the occasional insect.

With mature animals weighing in around 3 to 7.5 kilos, or 7 to 16 pounds, that puts them right in there with a plump roasting chicken or, at the high end, a decent-sized turkey. And if you caught a Shubenacadie Sam or Brandon Bob in the fall, right before hibernation, he, or she, would be about 20 per cent fat, making for some good eating.

When I first started poking around to see if people actually ate groundhogs, a.k.a. woodchucks a.k.a. marmots, the line drawn was between two camps: those who thought it was pretty outrageous or weirdly funny, as in, "no way, you'd eat those things?" And those who thought, "why not, they look fairly easy to catch and pretty tasty."

The borders were roughly drawn between die-hard urbanites and those who might hang out in nature a bit more, or at least people who've had some exposure to history and/or sourcing food from places other than a grocery store. Open minds also characterized the latter category — the kind of people I'd prefer to be stranded with on a desert island.