Sean and I are in The Vault. We’ve been here for a while—hours now. It’s less grandiose than it sounds, really just a back room in the Charlotte Town Hall, but it gives me the same feeling I get from the New York Public Library or a fancy art museum. Tread lightly, the walls are saying. Look closely. We have secrets for you.
What’s amazing is that the secrets of The Vault are not really secret at all. Every document in the room is in the public record, even the original map of the Town of Charlotte, hand-drawn in 1763. The massive red books of land records, the card catalogues of births and deaths—these pages of history are not preserved behind glass; we are perfectly free to look at them. I can reach out a hand, every now and then, to gently trace this two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old calligraphy.
We’re here to research the UVM Natural Area at Pease Mountain, a prominent hill directly west of the Charlotte Town Hall and just north of Mount Philo along the Champlain thrust fault. This semester, our cohort is performing a Landscape Inventory and Assessment of the area. We’ve spent several weekends strolling along the mountain’s broken quartzite ledges, and we’re starting to get a sense of the property’s natural resources. The soil is thin but rich, patterned here and there with the frostbitten remains of last year’s hepatica leaves. The trees are not the usual beech-birch-maple assortment we expected, but a variety of species used to warmer, drier climates: peeling trunks of shagbark hickory, gnarled red oaks, bitternut hickories with their sulfur-yellow buds. We’ve noticed hints of other mysteries: a road cut here, an old stone foundation there. UVM acquired the property in 1949; Sean and I want to know who has owned Pease Mountain–and what it’s been used for–as far back as the town’s records go.
We start by looking in the Index, a twenty-pound tome containing a list of every land transaction undertaken in Charlotte until the book ran out of pages around 1960. Thankfully the Index is alphabetized and we quickly find the record we need: “Jeanette S. Pease Phelps and George J. Holden to University of Vermont and State Agricultural College.”
I’m immediately absorbed in the web of archaic legalese that follows: “Now, know ye, That pursuant to the license and authority aforesaid, and not otherwise…We do by these Presents, grant, bargain, sell, convey and confirm unto the said University of Vermont…the following described land…Being Pease Mountain, so-called, in the town of Charlotte.” The deed was written barely more than half a century ago, but it reads like something from the middle ages. The solemn tone is compelling. I can picture the occasion, the buyers and sellers grouped around a table, poised to sign below the words, “In witness whereof, we hereunto set our hands and seals…”
We follow the trail further and further back, tracing property descriptions bounded by increasingly vague terms: “…to the N.E. corner of said lot to a maple stump with a cedar stake in said stump. Thence southerly on the west line of said owned by Everett Rich to a cedar stake & stones in the S.E. corner. Thence westerly on the north line…” The record books get thinner as we travel back in time, the pages more brittle, the writing fainter. Eventually we find ourselves scrutinizing a gridded map: the second subdivision of the town.
Accompanying the map with its numbered parcels, we find a list of the original owners of those parcels. Lot number 1, which at the time encompassed most of Pease Mountain, is ascribed to “Glebe for the Church.” We puzzle over this. Who was Glebe? We haven’t heard any mention of him in more recent deeds. Was he a minister?
Glebe for the Church. It sounds like a momentous designation. We finally think to Google the strange phrase, and we discover the ancient tradition of glebe land. It’s not a person after all, but a kind of conservation easement. When Vermont’s first towns were established, certain plots of land were set aside to remain undeveloped. These lands were leased to farmers or timber harvesters in exchange for a rental fee, which paid for municipal costs or, in this case, the upkeep of the parish. For hundreds of years, Pease Mountain was preserved by this tradition.
As we leave the Town Hall, Sean and I glance up at Pease. Our journey through the handwritten history of Charlotte has given us a deeper sense of this place. As we’ve walked there with our cohort we’ve mapped natural communities and forest stands, discovered vernal pools and views over the lake. But walking and looking can only take us so far back. Beyond the oaks and hickories, the purple cliffs, the porcupine and bobcat dens, there is another Pease Mountain story. It’s no longer legible in the landscape. But luckily for us, it’s all written down in the record books.
Julia Runcie is a first-year student in the Ecological Planning program.
“There is magic in running water, for after I have thought its life history all out there is still much unexplained.”
These are the words of my great-grandfather, from a book he wrote ninety-three years ago called Man’s Spiritual Contact with the Landscape. I never met him, as he died long before I was born, but from his words I can tell that we have much in common.
Every morning I walk beside the LaPlatte River in Shelburne and contemplate the life history of its waters. One morning this February a frozen flood made the magic in those waters visible. Rain on snow during a warm snap caused the level of the river to rise quickly during the night. By morning the river was several feet above its normal water level. The water fell gradually, but the temperature plunged quickly, and during the next night a thin layer of ice formed on the surface of the waters, marking the height of the water at the coldest part of the night. It was as though someone had pressed a pause button on the flood, and an eighth-inch-thick sheet of ice clung to trees and sticks, hovering six inches above the ground.
My dog and I crashed through this frozen landscape the next morning and reveled in the sparkling beauty of a world draped in a silver cloak of ice. Now, in April, the flood plain no longer sparkles, exactly – it wears the drab browns and greys of early spring. Bits of green poke through here and there, but for the most part every surface is still coated with the fine layer of silt left behind by receding flood waters. I revel in this landscape, too, because a functioning floodplain ecosystem is a beautiful thing.
That thin layer of silt represents a fresh collection of nutrient-rich sediment for the hungry plants and trees of the flood plain. The plants of the flood plain are specially adapted to live in this water- and nutrient-rich environment, and they often depend on annual flooding not just for nutrients, but also to spread their seeds and carry away any less well-adapted competition. Different plants adapt to different environments of the flood plain, some preferring the naturally formed berms just beyond the banks of the river, while others are more suited to the slow-to-drain boggy back-swamps. These, too, depend on flooding for their formation.
Roiling and fast moving flood waters contain a lot of energy, enough energy to carry much more than just silt. Sand, stones, and larger sediment often get swept up and transported long distances in a rushing spring river. When a river leaves its banks it immediately loses much of its energy. The water slows and spreads out across the floodplain, dropping first the heavy sediment, such as sands and gravel, and then the finer silts and organic materials further out. This sorting by size is what results in the gentle berms immediately past the banks of the river, and the silt that travels further is smaller, so it packs more tightly together when it reaches the ground, creating the slowly draining back-swamps beyond the berms.
Right now, in the pools of flood and melt water filling the back-swamps, peepers and wood frogs sing their spring chorus of lust in hopes of attracting a mate. These swamps and pools dry completely late in the year, and so sustain fewer aquatic predators that might eat the breeding amphibians or their eggs, so these pools are important for their survival. And their survival should be important to us, because amphibians are the main predators of mosquito larvae, who also favor the standing waters of back-swamps. Another frequent inhabitant of back-swamps, eastern newts, are capable of eating over 300 mosquito larvae in one day.
Many mammals also rely on the floodplain forests for their survival. Chipmunks and minks prey on the amphibians, and then in turn feed foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. Beavers are the architects of the channel, building dams and lodges that move the flow, eroding this bank or that, building sand bars with the changing flow path. Birds ranging from tiny wrens and finches all the way up to red-tailed hawks, ravens, and turkey vultures also feed on the life that surrounds the river.
My grandfather’s book included a chapter for each month of the year, but he began with the running waters of April. As I walk beside the river each morning it is not so difficult to see why, for the river and its tributaries are like veins through the landscape: they carry life. Life that wakes and grows and flies and sings in April. So next time you find yourself beside a river in April, look beyond the dull grey patina of silt and enjoy the magic that is running water.
Shelby Perry is a second year student in the Field Naturalist program. Her great-grandfather, Stephen F. Hamblin, was the author of the book Man’s Spiritual Contact with the Landscape and co-author of Handbook of Wild Flower Cultivation. He was a professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Harvard University and the Rhode Island School of Design and founded the Lexington Botanic Garden.
We’re in the middle of faoilleach – the Gaelic season comprising the last three weeks of winter and first three weeks of spring. Before you groan over the absence of green, and wish yourself in the lime lighting of a June forest, take time to notice and celebrate other colors that hint to the great awakenings of spring.
Beneath their pearly coats, the emerging catkins (spikes of single-sex, drooping, petal-less flowers) of the pussy willow glow magenta. Their presence is a cherished ritual of the seasons, Sigurd Olson writes, “In a world seething with mistrust, suspicion and clashing ideologies, pussy willows may be vital to the welfare of man and his serenity”.
Look for the deep burgundy color in the male catkins of speckled alder as their flowers begin to develop. As the male catkins begin to expand, the color brightens. Eventually the burgundy shifts toward yellow as the pollen develops. Note the smaller scarlet female catkins nubs above (these will transform into the cone-like structures that persist throughout the winter).
Ivory hairs gleam in newly opened shadbush buds. They help insulate the flowers from spring cold snaps. Soon clusters of 5-petaled propeller-like white flowers will emerge. The flowering time is an important seasonal clock – marking when shad swim upstream to spawn (hence the name) and the period when colonists who died over the winter were buried, hence another name—serviceberry.
Look for the bursting auburn flowers of silver maples lining streets and rivers, especially noticeable against a bluebird sky. This fast-growing and short-lived species carries its male and female flowers separately, although sometimes on the same tree.
Catkin tips shine silver as they emerge from flower buds of trembling aspen. Male and female catkins are found on separate trees. Despite millions of fluffy seeds produced, strict germinating constraints limit the success of these seeds. Thus aspens rely on root sprouting clones to earn their title of most widely distributed tree in North America.
Spring sun vividly reddens Red Osier Dogwood in early spring. The brilliance of color, generated by anthocyanin pigments in the bark, is determined by light intensity. In shaded areas, its stems and branches still grow, yet in greener tones.
If you’re impatient for the mints and emeralds, limes and jades, you can force the color. Simply place a twig in a jar with water near a window and be comforted by the return of green that will reveal itself outside in time.
Ellen Gawarkiewicz is a first-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program.
We want cheap groceries, strawberries in March, and impeccable lawns. We strive for dominion over the web of life, especially our domesticated crops and the pests that threaten them. Bees get caught in the middle of it all. Habitat homogenization and the increased use of pesticides –particularly neonicotinoids – have contributed to the decline of our pollinators, and bees have been hit the hardest. There are practical implications for this loss. We could talk about the $15 billion that honeybees contribute to the U.S. crop economy, or about the food on our fork (of which 1 in 3 bites requires insect pollination) . Undoubtedly, California’s profitable almond industry – a crop entirely reliant on honeybee pollination – would crumble overnight with the complete loss of honeybees. But with the disappearance of these proficient pollinators we risk much more than a painful sting to our economy; we jeopardize our humanity.
Bees offer us creative inspiration. The hive and its workers give us metaphors persistent in everyday language. The brilliant construction of hexagonal honeycomb encourages architectural marvels that promote efficient design (circles, pentagons and octagons leave wasted space; triangles and squares –with their greater relative circumference –lack the storage capacity of hexagons) . The cooperative society inside a hive emboldens us to become better humans. The careful collection of nectar reminds us to slow down and taste the sweetness of a good day. As worker bees gradually transform nectar to honey, they teach us fortitude and patience. Though these lessons are in shorter supply with a decline in apian educators, our individual and collective actions can keep them from disappearing altogether.
Many already stand –smoker in hand – ready to save the bees. Hobby beekeeping has gathered momentum, pollinator-friendly gardens are on the rise, and even the federal government has perked its ears. Organic agriculture has grown by 250% since 2002, a sign that consumer decisions have driven the market away from pesticide reliance . All of this comes as welcome news to honeybees, but their step-sisters haven’t received nearly the hype. With all the attention placed on domesticated bees, wild bees continue their downward spiral. In the Northeast alone, close to 25% of bumblebee species (Bombus spp.) have disappeared or declined throughout their range . Hopefully we can target our efforts more broadly to protect all genera of bees.
We know that habitat loss severely influences pollinator decline; our porches and backyards cover once-wild ground, but let’s keep our vision on the present for a minute. Landscaping with native plants is a great way to attract and support your local bees (not to mention reduce your mowing commitment). When the time comes for pruning, the hollow twigs of some goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.) make great homes for orchard (Osmia spp.) and small carpenter (Ceratina spp.) bees. Wooden boxes filled with holes serve a similar purpose for larger bees. Don’t forget to leave pockets of bare soil for ground-nesting bees (Colletes spp.). Minimizing pesticide use could help keep bees from dying, but habitat and food will give bees a chance to live.
Watching and keeping bees is more art than science. With this mindful craft comes patience, awareness, and imagination, but you don’t need a honeybee hive to enjoy such an experience. Yes, bees are essential to the health of our economy, our planet, and the diversity of our dinner plate. A world without almonds and apples would be a shame. But to live without the unwavering brilliance of such humble insects would be a tragedy.
Gabe Andrews is a first-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program at UVM.
 Hopwood, J. et al. (2012). Are neonicotinoids killing bees? A review of research into the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees, with recommendations for action. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
 Williams, G.R. et al., 2015. Neonicotinoid pesticides severely affect honey bee queens. Scientific Reports, 5, p.14621. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/srep14621.
 Mathis, C.R. and Tarpy, D.R. (2007). 70 Million years of building thermal envelope experience: building science lessons from the honey bee. Available at: https://www.cals.ncsu.edu
 USDA Office of Communications bulletin April 15, 2015
The flower buds from Mrs. Waters’ elm tree are 35,000 feet up in the stratosphere on an express flight to Ohio. The goal is to get them there before they dry up. When they arrive, scientists will lay them on wax paper, collect their pollen as it falls from the stamens, and use it to hand-pollinate the flowers of Ohio elms that are receptive and waiting in the lab. These buds may be the key to restoring the American elm to dominance in the floodplain forests of the Eastern United States, a focal project of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and floodplain ecologist Christian Marks.
The buds’ progenitor, a four-foot diameter American elm in Charlotte, Vermont, named Henrietta, has beat the odds. Located merely a stone’s throw from four other elms, all of which have succumbed to Dutch elm disease (DED), Henrietta is noticeably larger and healthier. Though she (also a he—American elms bear “perfect” flowers, with both male and female parts) has signs of DED on two branches, the remainder of the tree is healthy enough to produce flowering buds, a luxury that the sick elms around it cannot afford. Normally, trees exposed to DED die within a year of exposure[i]. That this one has not– and that it continues to flower—suggests it may possess some degree of resistance.
After scientists cross-pollinate the Vermont and Ohio elms, they will tend the branches until they set seed. When the seeds mature into small, wafer-like samaras, evolved for wind dispersal, the Ohio scientists will airmail them back to Marks (wind dispersal by mechanized means) who will then grow them to seedlings and plant them in one of TNC’s floodplain forest restoration preserves. But that’s not all. What’s to say those young seedlings won’t succumb to the same fate as their not-so-fortunate relatives?
For Marks to know that Henrietta is a stalwart, he must subject her offspring to a potentially fatal injection of DED when they reach one inch in diameter. Though it will be some time before we find out if Henrietta is truly resistant, the offspring of buds collected from other trees in 2011 and 2012 are approaching the requisite diameter for testing. And while “absolute resistance” is the stuff of science fiction, previous studies conducted through Guelph University in Canada found a heightened level of resistance in 25% of lab-pollinated offspring reared from large, healthy elms[ii]. Marks is hopeful for a similar (or better) result from his Vermont/Ohio crosses, which were selected not only for their size, but also for their proximity to elms that have succumbed to DED.
If Marks and his colleagues succeed in cultivating a DED-resistant American elm, this stately canopy tree may eventually be restored to its position in the highest strata of the floodplain forests in the Eastern United States and Canada. And though we may not be alive to see it regain canopy dominance, we can celebrate that the elm’s capacity for water uptake may reduce the severity of future flooding events, bald eagles may return to nest in its branches, and our children will once again walk to school beneath trees for which many American streets were named.
Perhaps this dream begins with the plump red buds bound – at this moment – for Ohio.
Hannah Phillips is a first-year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Christian Marks, Gus Goodwin, and The Nature Conservancy-Vermont, for welcoming her on this outing, to Mrs. Waters for offering samples from her tree, and to Chea Waters Evans for cleverly naming the tree Henrietta (after Henrietta Lacks).
Eight hundred years ago, the Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote, “The green mountains are always walking.” I was instantly taken with the truth of his words. Of course the green mountains (and the Green Mountains of Vermont) are always walking! How could they not?
Dogen didn’t know what I know about mountains. Plate tectonics wouldn’t exist for another seven centuries. Unlike Christianity, an ancient earth did not violate accepted Buddhist cosmology, but I doubt he was thinking of the fossil record. Perhaps Dogen was inspired by the inherent vulcanism of his native landscape, where fire spewed from the earth in a continual spasm of creation. Or perhaps he felt this was a useful illustration of deliberately looking outside of the normal, everyday mindset. Whatever the reason, as a naturalist and a reader, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Even though it defies our usual sense of the world, the mountains are walking.
What does it mean to fully know the Green Mountains’ walking? 480 million years ago, the movement of the North American continental plate began a collision course with a volcanic island arc in the midst of the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Over the course of the next thirty million years, the Green Mountains arose out of the jumble of continental crust, hardened lava and silty ocean mudstone, squeezed by the intense heat and pressure into schist. The geological record is peppered with such mountain-building events, taking place on a time scale almost too vast for our minds to contemplate. By human standards, mountains don’t walk, they crawl at a pace so slow a snail looks like a speed demon. And yet—the mountains are moving still.
In the case of the Green Mountains today, that movement is mostly downward, in the form of erosion, as wind and water dig out chunks of rock and sediment. As trivial as these forces might seem in the short term, over time, the mountain ranges can dissolve, sometimes even faster than they formed. For the Green Mountains of today, it’s less walking forwards or backwards in space, and more like running in place.
Of course, Dogen wasn’t talking about the Green Mountains of Vermont when he penned those lines. He may not have even meant “green” mountains—in Japanese, the character he uses, ao (青) can be used to mean blue, green or some subtle variation in between. I find it fitting that Dogen’s language neatly encapsulates the variation in the the Green Mountains I see on the horizon— shimmering blue through fog in the distance, deep rich green closer up, especially at the higher elevations where the darker evergreen conifers overtake deciduous trees.
Why should we even care about the mountains’ walking? For Dogen, it offers a true test of our understanding. Beyond words and phrases, beyond preconceived ideas, the true nature of the world beckons, just waiting for us to look closer and study it. As a naturalist, slowing down to see the mountains walking takes me out of the normal human scale of time and into the older, grander, cosmic story. In my mind, the mountains rise and fall as with a time-lapse camera, millennia pouring away like so many grains of sand, and the mountains flow, just as Dogen insists that they do. From the perspective of walking mountains, ordinary human difficulties no longer seem so challenging. The mountains, by their very nature, remind us that what we think we see is only a part of a larger, ongoing story.
Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.
Coffee-colored water peels away from our boat, sending ripples across the glass surface of Lake Drummond. The ancient cypress trees begin to dance as our wake bends their reflections. We’re crossing this hidden, undeveloped lake at the center of a once-vast wetland stretching from southern Virginia across a million acres into North Carolina. Now the Great Dismal Swamp is reduced to (a still impressive) 110,000 acres, hemmed in by development. We have this otherworldly, placid coffee lake all to ourselves on an unseasonably warm December day.
As we approach the other side of the lake, the shoreline landscape changes abruptly from dense swamp to a vast swath of burnt toothpicks. In the past ten years, two massive wildfires have swept through the Great Dismal Swamp. The most recent fire in 2011, Lateral West, consumed 6,500 acres and burned for 111 days, despite 12.5 million dollars expended in suppression efforts1. Not even the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene could squelch the fire.
Yet the swamp is inundated for half the year. Its organic soil, peat, is 85-95% water in its natural saturated state, and well known for its ability to retain moisture. How can a peatland burn?
Fire, it turns out, has been a natural process in the Great Dismal Swamp for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years. Peat, composed mostly of decaying plants, contains a lot of carbon—read: fuel for fire—compared to other soils. It’s so rich in carbon that high moisture content does not necessarily prevent combustion. Dry it out, and the whole swamp basically becomes a tinderbox. The water table in the Great Dismal Swamp fluctuates seasonally, normally falling below the soil from July through November. Lightning can ignite surface fires that smolder for months in the soil. Many of the plant assemblages in the Great Dismal Swamp actually depend on fires to persist. Lake Drummond likely formed from a massive peat fire1. But that’s not the whole story…
In May 1763, George Washington visited the Great Dismal Swamp for the first time and saw opportunity where its first colonial discoverer, William Byrd, famously saw a “horrible desert…toward the center of it no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile exists.” Washington invested in the swamp and began a long history of ditching and draining it for agriculture and logging.
Today, 158 miles of logging roads and ditches traverse the swamp, severely altering its natural hydrologic cycle. Parts of the refuge that were once seasonally saturated have been drained, and when peat is left dry for too long, it transforms to a granular, oxidized state that will not re-saturate, even under flooded conditions. Centuries of logging have left a legacy of fuel for fire in the form of slash. Add hotter, drier weather patterns to the mix, a few strikes of lightning, and the resulting blaze will be visible from space.
As climate patterns increasingly shift, what role will peatlands play in the global carbon cycle? In many peatlands, inundation slows the rate of decomposition, and carbon-rich organic soils slowly build up. The organic soils in the Great Dismal Swamp, for example, are over 51 inches deep in places. Many scientists view peatlands as an important carbon sink because they store carbon below ground for long periods of time. When peatlands burn, they release the stored soil carbon into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, and peat fires often smolder for months, reaching deep into the thick peat—the Great Dismal Swamp lost over a 39 inches of organic soil in some areas in the 2011 fire2.
Peat fires are different from forest fires as we’re used to thinking about them. They are exceedingly difficult to extinguish, and the carbon emitted by burning soil can dwarf emissions from aboveground forest. The impact can be massive—Lateral West emitted much higher amounts of carbon per unit area compared to five other fires that burned mostly aboveground plants and trees2. In 1997, massive peat fires in Indonesia released an equivalent amount of carbon to 13-40% of the average annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels3. And most of that carbon came from the soil.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, has been working for years to restore the hydrology of the Great Dismal Swamp, and balance the benefits and risks of wildfire—an already complex task that is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Who knew that draining a swamp could have such dismal consequences?
- Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan. (2006).
- Reddy, A. D. et al. Quantifying soil carbon loss and uncertainty from a peatland wildfire using multi-temporal LiDAR. Remote Sens. Environ. 170, 306–316 (2015).
- Page, S. E. et al. The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61–66 (2002).
Jessie Griffen is a second year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Dr. William Old and Levi Old for an amazing voyage into the Great Dismal Swamp.
Suppose you were a mink in need of breakfast in Burlington. Where would you go?
Alicia Daniel, Field Naturalist for the city of Burlington and 1988 graduate of the FNEP program, could probably tell you. Follow Alicia (and the mink) in the recent Burlington Free Press article “Burlington’s wild heart,” written by FNEP graduate Kerstin Lange.
YOU DON’T NEED PUNXSUTAWNEY PHIL to know which way the wind blows. Groundhog Day ain’t about shadows. It’s about sex. Birds and rodents now begin a season of foreplay.
No, spring is not around the corner – at least not here in Vermont. Songbirds don’t rely on the vagaries of weather to calculate their breeding cycles. Instead, they schedule mating and nesting to take advantage of a reliable abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which happens in May and June here at our latitude. As the days grow longer, birds do get ready to, well, um, make more birds. It’s why we’re starting to hear Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, House Finches and other birds erupting into song on sunny mornings.
Day length is a far more reliable calendar than weather. It is not entirely clear how birds measure day length, but we do know that photo-receptors in bird brains sense increasing light. It triggers the production of hormones that act like birdie Viagra. Their sexual organs revive from a state of dormancy. So when the food is there in May, songbirds will be ready … you know, physically.
February 2 is indeed significant. It falls about halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, a period celebrated in various ways in human traditions from Paganism to Christianity. And early February is when we start to get 10 hours of daylight – February 6 this year. It seems to be a turning point for wildlife.
But why the groundhog? Couldn’t we have picked a loftier critter to represent the coming of the light? As it turns out, this rodent is indeed a worthy messenger of spring. In February, woodchucks begin to emerge from hibernation on the prowl. They need to breed soon so that females produce litters during greater food abundance in April and May. Males emerge from their burrows to find and visit with females. But many of these early encounters are merely courtship visits, which pay dividends, research suggests, when it comes time to breed a bit later. It’s sort of like another February ritual – Valentine’s Day.
Squirrels aren’t so tactful. Female red squirrels are in estrus, receptive to males for breeding, for about eight hours on only a single day during this season. And male squirrels outnumber females in the wild by as much as five to one. The consequence of this skewed gender ratio and hard-to-get females is that life during the breeding season can be, to say the least, challenging for the male. He’ll spend lots of time following her in the days before she is in estrus. Should the male be too forthcoming, too eager before she is ready, she will rebuff his advances with a swat to the face or a painful bite. (I hate it when that happens.)
And when those precious eight hours finally arrive, a male is hardly alone in this drama. He often must compete with or fight other males for her affections – actually for a copulation that might last only about 20 seconds. Out there in the trees, it’s a free-for-all. “To the casual observer, what ensues is probably best described as pure and unadulterated chaos,” write biologists Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski in their fantastic book, North American Tree Squirrels.
So let’s recognize the real significance of Groundhog Day. This isn’t a holiday about six more weeks of winter. It’s a celebration of romance, even if it turns out to be unadulterated, chaotic rodent romance.
Bryan Pfeiffer teaches writing in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs.