Daily Nature Diary 2: Groundhogs (Marmota monax)

On the surface, today is an ordinary Saturday. I didn’t set my alarm, but still got up before sunrise. I had my breakfast, then sipped my customary earl grey tea at my desk while I listened to NPR’s Weekend Edition. I did some computer work. I read while I ate lunch: my weekend treat of cheese, crackers, apple, and peanut butter. I read some more burrowed under a blanket on the couch. I took a stroll around the neighborhood. And now I’m back at my desk writing.

I saw two groundhogs on my walk. One was trundling along the overgrown bank of the stream at the end of my road. The other was munching clover on the edge of a planted row of trees by the train tracks. I loved watching them rustle around in the greening grass, noses twitching, backsides wiggling. Today has been a groundhog day.

Which made me think how this is far from an ordinary stay-at-home Saturday because every day this week has been Saturday, though so unlike how Saturday should be. I got up early this morning because I finally said to hell with it after tossing and turning since 3 am. The news was singularly focused on the pandemic. I turned it off and on obsessively throughout the morning, fearing if I didn’t listen I’d miss something crucial, but knowing if I kept listening I’d slowly go insane. I couldn’t concentrate on my reading. People made a wide berth around me when we passed on the sidewalk. Here at my desk, I keep interrupting my writing with emails and messages to friends, checking in on everyone’s safety. Everything I do looks routine, but nothing is.

Still, if an animal behaviorist conducted an ethogram study on my Saturdays, they would find today wholly unexceptional. I performed all my usual weekend behaviors. I read. I wrote. I foraged. I cleaned the kitchen. I took my afternoon walk.

I ran a short ethogram on the second groundhog of my walk. The first loped off into the scrub as soon as it noticed me watching. Lying on my stomach in the grass about 20 feet from the busy little land-beaver, I counted how long the groundhog spent munching, how long he moseyed between clover patches, and how long he sat upright.

When an animal pauses its activity and looks up, behavioral ecologists often refer to this as vigilance. The animal is looking out for potential dangers in its surroundings, which it obviously can’t do while it’s busy munching grass. How could a groundhog possibly do two things at once?

Note my heavy exasperation. With ethograms, we’re interested in how an animal budgets its time. Thus, it’s necessary to divide the animal’s behaviors into specific, measurable actions that can be counted during a set observation period. However, I worry that this framework grossly oversimplifies animal life. Ethograms assume tradeoffs between discrete actions: if you’re focused on one thing, you can’t be doing something else. So the more time a groundhog spends with his head down in the meadow, the more likely he is to get pounced on by a fox he didn’t notice was sneaking up behind him.

But why would the groundhog look up in the first place, unless he’d been paying a little attention and perceived something out of sorts? I highly doubt groundhogs have an internal clock that reminds them: hey you’ve been chowing down for five minutes now- might want to check around for foxes. To me, it seems far more likely that he stopped actively munching because he heard a rustle in the woods behind him or smelled something musky when the wind shifted. I could watch a groundhog who doesn’t look up from his food for thirty minutes straight. Maybe he’s being reckless, or maybe he’s listening and sniffing the whole time and simply isn’t finding anything worthy of an interruption.

I realize I’m biased to think this way because I’m terrible at focusing on a single task. I listen to podcasts while I cook dinner. I do crossword puzzles while I eat breakfast. I sketch jellyfish and beetles while I watch The West Wing in the evening. And I think, incessantly. I often have to reread paragraphs because I make some connection between the words on the page and another half-related idea and wander down that rabbit hole instead of absorbing the sentence I’m currently supposed to be reading. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with a sudden burning research question because I’ve been unwittingly designing experiments in my sleep.

My distraction is especially obvious these days. I am hyper-vigilant. I jump to pick up my cellphone every time it buzzes (it just did as I was typing this sentence.) I scroll anxiously through Twitter news while my computer models are running. I startle off the path when I see an older gentleman with a cane coming towards me so I don’t accidentally breathe on him, pretending to examine some flowers and mumbling hello into my sleeve as he shuffles past. Is this how groundhogs live day to day: every sound is a warning and every encounter is a potential danger? If it is, you wouldn’t know it from watching them waddle around in the field.

You wouldn’t know it from watching me, either. I’m going through the motions like it’s an ordinary Saturday, singing to myself as I shuffle around the house in my slippers. I’m even writing about animal behavior like I love to do in my spare time. Right now, all I have is spare time. Yet nothing is normal, and I’m hyper-aware of that knowledge.

I guess we’ll all have acclimate to this new way of living, these familiar old routines that now feel eerily foreign. We won’t have ordinary Saturdays for a while.

There’s a young groundhog who’s been wandering through our backyard. I like to watch him nosing the grass out our back window. He’s a lanky little thing, especially when he stands up. It’s always right around 3 pm when he squeezes in through the fence. I hope he’ll visit every day. He’d be a welcome addition to the routine.

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