Roughly a month ago woodchucks were at the peak of their mating season. New England’s largest member of the Squirrel family is about to give birth to two to six young chucks. In preparation for this event, dead grasses are gathered and carried by mouth to the underground nest chamber, which is about 15 inches in diameter. Woodchucks are tidy rodents — the female covers her young’s waste with new bedding placed directly over the old, and when the nest becomes too bulky or unsanitary, the matted material is removed and fresh bedding is added.
A sure sign of spring is the emergence of woodchucks, the largest members of the Squirrel family in New England, after a long winter’s sleep. Their arousal is easily noted, for when the males wake up, they do some excavating of their tunnel, scattering dirt all around it which is easily spotted on the snow (if there is still any snow left). Equally obvious is the muddy trail they leave when in search of a female. Mating takes place in March and April, and the resulting litters of 2 to 6 young are born a month later.
Porcupines leave plenty of signs where they have eaten the inner bark, or cambium layer, of a tree. Bark is missing on the trunk of the tree, leaving fresh, yellow wood exposed, which often bears incisor marks. An observation I have made over the years is that porcupines often de-bark around or near their hollow tree dens. Typically, if a tree den is used year after year, they gnaw off bark each year, sometimes eating the old, scarred portion which, due to previous chewing, lacks cambium cells. This has led me to wonder whether fresh de-barking in the vicinity of their tree den entrance might have more, or as much, to do with a porcupine’s staking out a claim on that tree than with its sustenance. I have never come across any research that even mentions this phenomenon, and would welcome feedback from anyone who has.
Black bears are known for denning in a variety of locations, including under logs and stumps, under the branches of a fallen tree and inside caves and hollow trees. Occasionally they choose a site where they are fully exposed, such dense thickets. This photograph of an abandoned den is just that — a depression in the middle of a stand of almost impenetrable red spruces which bears have lined with broken spruce boughs. The imprint of two small bears (likely two year olds) in the needles, plus other nearby signs confirm that this den was inhabited fairly recently. With the mild winter we’re having and the abundance of fruits and nuts this past fall, the hibernation habits of bears may well have been altered – I know of tracks that were spotted in January as well as this month — one typically wouldn’t expect to find bears emerging from their dens much before late March or early April. (Notice bark is missing on some of the nearby spruce trunks from bears biting and tearing it.)