Where have all the creatures gone?

December 08, 1990|By Amalie Adler Ascher

Some comments contained in Michigan State University's "Outreach Communications" packet by Dr. Glenn R. Dudderar, an associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at the university, prompted me to give him a call. Folks often wonder, he noted, where animals roving the garden go in the wintertime.

Dr. Dudderar grew up in Baltimore and his observations of local furry creatures are still fresh. Gardeners counting the days until moles go into hibernation, he says, are in for a disappointment. Like most other mammals, moles don't hibernate, he says, but continue to tunnel through the soil all winter.

Whether their tunnels are noticeable or not depends on how deeply the ground freezes. In a mild winter, moles stay nearer the surface and their mounds are therefore easily seen. As the weather worsens, they dig lower. As signs of them are lost to view, humans may assume they have retreated from the garden, at least for the time being.

Moles, incidentally, don't eat bulbs or plants; it's mice using their runs that are the guilty parties. Moles, although performing a service in eating white grubs and other insects, cancel out the benefit in defacing lawns and damaging flower and vegetable roots as they build their tunnels.

The woodchuck, otherwise known as the groundhog, Dr. Dudderar says, is a true hibernator. Commonly found in wooded suburban and rural communities in Maryland, it will burrow down a couple of feet under a backyard shed or porch, a hedge row, a decorative boulder or a pile of firewood. Their tunnels may run 50 feet long and be accessible from both ends.

The groundhog is especially fond of wild clover and dandelions, string beans, melons, lettuce, daisies and cole crops, all of which flattens to the ground as effectively as if it had swept by with a lawn mower. The animal may emerge in daylight, but is frightened off at the first sound or the sight of people.

Come Thanksgiving, it goes into hibernation, falling into a deep sleep. Its body temperature drops to 40 degrees, Dr. Dudderar says, its heartbeat slows to four times a minute, and its bowel and urinary functions grind to a halt. In this comatose state -- known as true hibernation -- the groundhog is as close to death as it's possible to get without actually being dead.

Although Groundhog Day is officially Feb. 2, Dr. Dudderar says it's not until midway in that month or early in March, depending on the weather, that the groundhog actually comes back to life.

Another non-hibernator is the rabbit. Rabbits, Dr. Dudderar says, "tough it out" through the winter, remaining active throughout and changing habits as the need arises. To survive harsh weather, they must find very thick cover. They'll crawl under backyard sheds and parked recreation vehicles and into thickets of Pfitzer juniper, yew and white or red cedar. In extreme cold, a rabbit might even stoop to entering a groundhog's abode.

Without their favorite vegetables to feed on, rabbits will make do with grass. And if that's buried under snow, they might chew the bark off trees -- girdling and possibly killing them.

The raccoon behaves in a similar way, keeping active and making its nightly rounds of garbage cans in search of food if the winter is mild. It climbs trees to eat berries and fruit and if water isn't frozen, will catch minnows and frogs if it can find them.

To escape severe weather, the raccoon will climb into a hollow tree and remain there until conditions moderate. Rather than venture out for food, Dr. Dudderar says, the raccoon reasons that it's better to stay put and conserve the energy it's already stored than to venture out and expend it in the dubious hope of gaining a little more. In truly harsh weather, several raccoons might den together to share body warmth. A raccoon can sleep as long as a month before hunger drives it out in search of a meal. However, they don't nap underground, Dr. Dudderar says, and they'd just as soon spend a couple of weeks of bad weather ensconced in your attic or chimney as anywhere else.

Chipmunks, with habits not nearly as endearing as their appearance, can be a problem in suburban and urban yards, Dr. Dudderar says. "They make tunnels all over the place."

Besides invading basements and garages, they dig up flowering and sweet onion bulbs in the springtime. To control them, Dr. Dudderar suggests spraying the bed with the repellant Hinder that produces an odor when the green tips of growth first emerge and continuing the application every two weeks thereafter, according to directions. Because the little devils are seed-eaters, they also "pick" snap beans and peas.

Like raccoons, chipmunks are out and about if the weather is mild, burrowing underground and biding their time when conditions turn too cold for comfort. But whereas raccoons may "gang up" to keep warm, Dr. Dudderar says chipmunks are solitary creatures. And they don't climb trees.

As for the ubiquitous gray squirrel, only the coldest weather will drive him into a tree (or into your attic) for a sound sleep. When the weather's better, he'll re-emerge to dig up nuts he's buried earlier. The only problems squirrels cause in the winter garden are in dislodging mulch to get at their buried food, and in raiding bird feeders.


The author of "The Garden in Autumn" (Atlantic Monthly, $29.95), in last week's column was misidentified; it is Allen Lacy.

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