Albino groundhogs are no white lie

This Just In. . .

May 29, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

LAST YEAR, it was an albino slug, reported exclusively right here in this space (TJI, Aug. 29, 1997). This year, it's -- are you sitting down? -- an albino groundhog. Wait. Check that. Make it three, albino groundhogs. The white woodchucks of White Hall! Marmota monax albus.

(Stay with me on this one, folks. It's a scoop, I tell ya, a scoop!)

I saw two of the melanin-deficient rodents with my own eyes yesterday morning in the lovely rear yard of Mr. Gene Stiffler's home in White Hall, northern Baltimore County, not far from Little Falls. (And it was free. Didn't have to pay $14 to see it at the National Aquarium, either!)

Look now. I've seen groundhogs before. In the central Maryland landscape, they're as common as blue plastic bags.

I've seen 'em alive. I've seen 'em as squashed roadkill. I've seen 'em as bloated roadkill.

I've seen 'em all hours of the day -- reddish-brown critters, fatter and heavier and cuter than you might think, waddling through thick grass, foraging, then standing on their beanbag bottoms, sticking their noses into the breeze to determine the locale of the nearest garden. I've seen the holes and tunnels groundhogs have dug.

I've seen the finest of marksmen stake out their dens, hoping to get a shot at 'em, only to be frustrated by the mighty hog's stealth and deceptive ground speed.

So, I've had experience with G-hogs.

But not with white ones.

Until Gene Stiffler, who was born on Groundhog's Day in 1941 and named after Gene Autry -- I am not making this up! -- invited me up to his place by Little Falls yesterday morning.

It was a lovely morning, too, warm and breezy. I could hear the riffles in the stream from the top of a slope in Stiffler's sprawling yard, which strikes me as a prime place to observe wildlife. Stiffler has numerous bird feeders and birdhouses on his property, and while I was there I saw bluebirds, goldfinches, robins, an indigo bunting . . .

And two white groundhog pups!

Pure white, about 10 or 12 inches long. They were foraging near a patch of daylillies with two brown siblings of the same size. Mother G-hog was right nearby. I couldn't tell if the white pups had pink eyes -- mark of true albinism -- but I got close enough to be convinced that Gene Stiffler had something truly unusual in his back yard.

How rare is albinism in groundhogs?

Hard to say. Albinism occurs once in every 20,000 human births, but it's hard to find such statistics on groundhogs.

Most of my research turned up anecdotal stuff. For instance, I've learned that the official prognosticator of Canada's annual Ground Hog Day observance is named Wiarton Willie, and he happens to be albino. Not that that tells you anything about the rate of occurrence of groundhog albinism (or leukism, which is white skin or fur with normal pigmented eyes, even more uncommon).

Glen Therres, a wildlife biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said he's never heard of a white groundhog. "Doesn't surprise me to hear a report of albinism," he said. "But I've never heard of a white groundhog."

Bill Burton, longtime outdoors writer in these parts, says he heard of a white groundhog about 40 years ago, early in his career at The Evening Sun. He's more often heard of white squirrels and white deer.

Indeed, albino deer were spotted in Greenbrier State Park in Western Maryland in 1995, and some years ago one became a local legend in the Sparks area of Baltimore County.

A Sun colleague saw a white snapping turtle in a nature preserve in southern Maryland last spring. Last summer we told you about Ollie, the albino slug of Lansdowne. Also last summer, fishermen in Maine came up with an albino lobster. Two years ago, motorists near Richmond, Va., reported a white crow along Interstate 64. And in 1994, a white buffalo was born on a farm in Wisconsin. The same year, a white alligator, captured in Cajun country in 1987, went on display at a zoo in southern Florida.

But back to the white groundhogs of White Hall.

Gene Stiffler says he first noticed a white adult groundhog on the south end of his property earlier this month. He got out his videocamera to record it, and showed me the tape yesterday. Later in the tape, the pups appear, though for a time Stiffler's video was a little shaky.

Lots of people get shaky-cam-itis, but Stiffler had a good excuse for his: "I was sort of hiding and leaning against a tree when I taped them, and ants started crawling up my pants."

Other footage was not shaky at all and clearly showed the foraging young pups -- completely white.

Of late, Stiffler says, the mother groundhog and her brood -- two brown, two white -- have moved away from dad, making a home on the north side of his property. "It's like they moved out and took their own apartment," he says.

(Wonder if dad pays pup support.)

When Stiffler and I stepped behind a large lilac bush, out of view, the white groundhog pups came out of the lillies and nosed through the grass. That's when I got my best look at them. I felt privileged to have had the opportunity and thanked Gene Stiffler for it.

I hope the white groundhogs live happily ever after, but that might be impossible. Groundhogs have natural predators -- redtail hawks, great horned owls, the gray and red fox, and dogs -- and white fur will dramatically increase the pups' vulnerability.

Maybe we ought to just go ahead and catch 'em and keep 'em in some safe place. Maybe the folks in White Hall ought to get

together and do something. I can see the sign on Weisburg Road now: "Welcome to White Hall, Land of the White Groundhog."

Pub Date: 5/29/98

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