The Life And Times Of Milton, The Greedy Groundhog

OUTDOORS

He Lives Where Hewants, Eats What He Wants, Goes Where He Wants

July 10, 1991|By Marie V. Forbes

Milton is not your ordinary groundhog.

In fact, he's more of a road hog.

Milton's primary residence sits atop a high, sloping roadside bank. The moment he senses a car coming down the lane, he ambles slowly out into the roadway.

Sauntering disdainfully across the macadam, he passes at his leisure, defying the approaching motorist to hit himand ignoring the impatient blasts of car horns. As far as he's concerned, this is his territory and traffic can wait.

Milton first appeared in our neighborhood one midsummer a few years ago. He was a mere youngster of a groundhog, looking for a place to establish himself.Since groundhogs may live to the ripe old age of 18, the choice of asite for a burrow was not one to be taken lightly.

Our bank backsup to a woods and is adjacent to a stream of clear, flowing water. Apparently that site offered the amenities Milton required.

Having looked the area over and deciding it met with his approval, Milton dug in. Soon an impressive mound of dirt arose to mark the burrow entrance.

Later he expanded the burrow to include a number of side passages, "bolt holes" that would allow him to take refuge at a moment's notice.

Not that Milton is given to retreating. Like others of hisspecies, he is a highly territorial mammal, claiming eminent domain over his chosen spot and defying any other groundhog to approach.

For a radius of several hundred yards, there might as well be signs similar to those a local real estate agent displays, announcing that this is "Milton Country."

That first year, Milton was wary of the humans who shared his territory and gave them a fairly wide berth. When the weather turned cold, he disappeared from sight for months.

About mid-February of the following year, he emerged from his burrow, stretched and went prowling for food. Soon his brown coat was once again sleek and his tummy bulged from the fresh clover blossoms he had consumed.

Now that he was a full-grown groundhog it was evident his ego had expanded to keep pace with his body. Soon Milton made it clear he intended to be king of this particular hill.

Milton acquired his name because the slope of his head resembles that of a friend with the same name. However, we've never had the courage to reveal to said friend that the way he combs his hair to conceal approaching baldness led to a groundhog being named after him.

Milton -- the groundhog, not the friend -- is a member of an extremely prolific animal family. In addition to his fellow groundhogs (woodchucks, if you wantto be a bit more proper; Marmota monax if you want to go the whole nine yards and give him his Latin title), he's also related the squirrels, marmots, prairie dogs and chipmunks.

Although we admire Milton for his savoir-faire in most situations, during mating season he loses his cool and becomes extremely jealous of the female of his choice. The approaches of other aggressive males result in knockdown, drag-out, tail-biting melees from which Milton inevitably emerges the victor.

For days afterward, he sits sunning himself on the mound in front of his burrow, a smug, self-congratulatory smirk on his face.

But, alas, Milton is no family man. Only for a brief period during the mating season does he allow the lady of his choice to share his burrow. Once the deed is done, he sends her packing to give birth to their young out of his sight and without his assistance.

If the brood sired by Milton follows the usual pattern, each litter is made up of three or four offspring, small, naked and blind at birth. At about one month, they will emerge from their burrow and begin foraging for themselves. But the lack of paternal instincts prevents Milton from ever being able to identify them as his own.

Because of their common name, some people mistakenly assume groundhogs to be related to thehedgehogs found most notably in the English countryside. Not so. Hedgehogs are of the family Erinaceidae, carnivores whose diet consists of worms, bugs and small animals.

Milton would find it insulting to be grouped with these meat eaters. He is a strict vegetarian.

Aside from controlling traffic in the neighborhood, Milton also serves as keeper of the corn. When shoots appear in early spring he ambles over to nearby fields several times each day and eats his fill.

Now-- in midsummer -- Milton is in groundhog heaven. There's succulent clover for the salad course, plenty of corn for an entree, and summerapples for dessert. Later there will be acorns to add to his diet.

By October, Milton will once again retreat into his burrow, some 6 1/2 feet below ground. He'll sleep away the winter, dreaming perhaps of the pretty young female who briefly shared his digs, or maybe of fields full of sweet, juicy cornstalks.

Actually, we'll miss him. It just isn't the same to drive down the lane without stopping to let Milton cross.

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