Whistle pig, woodchuck, whatever. Ew.

Feelhaver first-graders learn about the critter that some people believe predicts the amount of winter that’s left

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Aythan Lumsden, 6, a first-grade student at Feelhaver Elementary School, is less than thrilled with the fur texture of a taxidermied woodchuck Wednesday afternoon during a presentation by Webster County Conservation Naturalist Erin Ford.

Most of them lead quiet, unassuming lives of digging burrows, eating various berries, roots and leaves, and then sleeping it all off for three months in the winter.

A few get famous.

Punxsutawney Phil being among those and locally, a former resident of the closed Oleson Park Zoo named Chubbers who used to get lifted from his “burrow” by Fort Dodge Mayor Matt Bemrich.

On Wednesday, the first-grade students at Feelhaver Elementary School got to learn about the critter that some believe predicts the amount of winter that’s left.

Webster County Conservation Naturalist Erin Ford brought one along to show them, a safely taxidermied specimen.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
As Webster County Conservation Naturalist Erin Ford keeps an eye on his tail, a group of Feelhaver Elementary School first-graders look over a taxidermied woodchuck she brought for a presentation on the creatures. The students are, from left, Rylen Wegener, Kai Lewis, Bailey Feldmann and Rylan Burch. Their fellow first-grade students wait their turn behind them.

“There’s a lot of different names for them,” she said. “Groundhog, woodchuck and whistle pig. It’s all the same animal.”

Before introducing the groundhog, woodchuck or whistle pig, she asked them what recent holiday the animal is associated with.

“Groundhog Day,” one of them said

“What happens on Groundhog Day?” she asked the students.

One of them knew exactly.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen
Webster County Conservation Naturalist Erin Ford shows a group of students plastic replicas of a woodchuck’s feet Wednesday afternoon during a presentation to the first grade students at Feelhaver Elementary School.

“You do a lot of groundhog stuff,” they said.

Ford pointed out that a marmot monax, as they’re known scientifically, can’t actually predict the weather.

“It’s just the luck of the draw whether it’s cloudy or not,” she said.

They are excellent diggers. Their burrows can reach 45 feet in length and they go down six feet under the ground. The burrows include different rooms or chambers for different purposes.

One of those got universal ”eeews.”

“They have a bathroom where they go potty,” Ford said.

They eat as much as they can during the spring, summer and fall, she said. Then they hibernate.

“They use up all of that food they ate,” she said. “They can lose a quarter of their weight. Even their body temperature drops.”

During their active months, the woodchucks actually help spread plant life. Seeds are passed in their scat through the areas where they roam.

“We get to talk about scat,” Ford said. “It’s their poop and animal poop is called scat.”

They’re also quite the voracious eaters.

“They can eat up to a pound at a time,” she said.

All that eating is needed, too. As members of the rodent family, their teeth grow continuously.

“If they don’t eat all the time their teeth will grow into their jaw,” she said. “When they encounter tree roots they chew them.”

After playing a game where the students got to learn that, yes indeed, groundhog predictions are simply chance, they got to meet Ford’s stuffed specimen up close. They also got to examine a pair of plastic castings of groundhog feet.

“They have fur,” she said. “The tips are white. It helps them blend in. They also shed like your dog does.”

Well, most dogs.

“My dog doesn’t shed,” a student said.

The students were quite curious about the woodchuck that ended up posed on a piece of log.

“How do they get it like that?” one asked.

A simple explanation of taxidermy led to more questions.

“What do they do with the guts?” one asked.

Anyway, onto getting to pet the woodchuck and getting a feel for the fur.

One student out of the group, didn’t like it.

Aythan Lumsden, 6, thought it a bit too coarse.

“It doesn’t feel like my pet dog,” he said.

One question was left unanswered.

So how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Nobody, not even a skilled naturalist, knows.

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