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Chucking wood: The groundhog vs. the woodchuck

A 1954 illustration in The Daily Herald gave the people of the Mississippi Coast a comic idea of what a groundhog looks like. Every Feb. 2, the groundhog is supposed to pop out of its hibernation burrow. Seeing its shadow, which happens most years, portends six more weeks of winter. No shadow means an early spring nationwide.
A 1954 illustration in The Daily Herald gave the people of the Mississippi Coast a comic idea of what a groundhog looks like. Every Feb. 2, the groundhog is supposed to pop out of its hibernation burrow. Seeing its shadow, which happens most years, portends six more weeks of winter. No shadow means an early spring nationwide. The Daily Herald/Feb. 2, 1954 edition

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Would you believe about 700 pounds?

The proverbial question, disguised as a childhood tongue-twisting riddle-rhyme, has been debated through the decades with little definitiveness but lots of laughter.

The official rhyming answer is “As much wood as a woodchuck could chuck/If a woodchuck could chuck wood.”

Know-it-alls

Some know-it-alls insist the riddle’s answer is, “None, because a woodchuck can not chuck wood.” Then the debate turns to the definition of the verb “to chuck,” which by most accounts means to toss or throw. The woodchuck, seldom over 11 pounds full grown, bears no resemblance to a Scottish caber tosser, and the critter does not saw logs like his beaver cousin.

The answer?

So then, how did someone come up with the “700 pounds of wood” answer?

Since the late 1980s such reporting sources as The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press have cited New York wildlife expert Richard Thomas. He calculated the length and width of an average woodchuck burrow. If the critter had moved the same amount of wood as dirt to create its burrow, that would be the equivalent of 700 pounds of wood, an answer that makes as much sense as the riddle.

Thursday is Groundhog Day

So why even write about it? Check your calendar. Thursday is Groundhog Day.

Groundhog is another name for the woodchuck. The Marmota monax comes from a group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. Over a century ago some savvy Pennsylvanians figured out how to promote their region to lure tourist dollars by creating Punxsutawney Phil, a weather-forecasting groundhog. If Phil sees his shadow on Feb. 2, it means six more weeks of winter.

No groundhogs here

Growing up on the Mississippi Coast, I never saw groundhogs simply because there were none. But thanks to teachers and national news, generations of groundhog-less Americans have known about soothsayer Phil. Even before electronic mass media, newspapers happily kept his story alive.

“It is remarkable what faith some people who wouldn’t believe a life insurance agent under oath have in the groundhog,” a columnist in this newspaper quipped in 1907. That’s 110 years ago.

My first memory of groundhogs comes from summers spent with Pennsylvania grandparents and my brother’s unsuccessful attempts to bag one with a bow and arrow.

When I became a reporter specializing in the Gulf region’s unique character, I found reasons to write something about groundhogs most Februaries, even though these weather-predicting critters still did not inhabit the Coast.

Updating groundhog facts

Fast forward to today and I’m re-researching groundhogs for this Sunday missive. When I learn that Oxford and northern Mississippi counties now have sightings, I wonder if the Coast’s “No Woodchucks Here!” status has changed.

So I call Tom Mann, a natural heritage program zoologist at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson. Tom has found no recorded sightings of groundhogs in the coastal counties.

“We don’t track woodchucks in this state but I can tell you they are in northeast Mississippi and probably expanding their territory,” Tom explains.

Southern-most spotting

Several years ago his office received a call about a groundhog killed by a dog in Wayne County, which is the southern-most spotting to date. Because there are no other reported Waynesboro sightings, wildlife experts wonder if this animal was imported to Wayne County by a human. Neighboring Alabama has an increasing woodchuck population but to get to Wayne from there, they’d have a lot of swimming to do across a river.

A watery Coast burrow

“Will woodchucks come to the Coast?” Tom ponders. “There are chipmunks on the Coast now, so we never say never. Woodchucks are not ubiquitous so we can’t swear they won’t come that far south. We just can’t make generalizations about mammals.”

So for Coast groundhog possibilities, it is a wait-and-see. Meanwhile, let’s dust off the old Buffy Sainte-Marie album (or head to YouTube) for her classic “Groundhog” song with that memorable mouth harp accompaniment:

Groundhooggg! Groundhooggg!

What makes your back so brown?

“I’ve been living in the ground

“so darn long,

“It’s a wonder I don’t drown, drown.

“It’s a wonder I don’t drown.”

Come to think of it, the Coast water table is so high that groundhog burrowing might be problematic. A groundhog burrow can be 5 feet deep and up to 50 feet long. That’s why a woodchuck could chuck up to 700 pounds of wood if the woodchuck could chuck wood.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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