A tree in the Franks’ Victor backyard is home to some fat furry friends.
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Not so much over at the Frank household on Blazey Road in Victor.
The plump furry critters who frequent their yard are too busy lounging, up
in their trees.
“Oh goodness! We couldn’t believe it,” says Carolyn Frank of the first time she and her husband, Bob, saw one scoot up their mulberry.
Before their dog frightened it up a tree, the Franks had no idea woodchucks could even climb. In the past five or six years though, they’ve wandered out to find woodchucks in the branches of poplar, willow, wild apple and walnut trees, without provocation of the fear of fido.
They’ve been as high as 30 feet.
“They just sit and look at you,” says Bob Frank. “They drool a lot ... It’s really strange. I didn’t see any purpose for them to be up there.”
Carolyn and Bob were raised on farms in the area. Their families did their fair share battling rampaging woodchucks, who ate their gardens and made grazing areas into mine fields with their burrows. Never once while growing up did they see a woodchuck climb a tree, though.
They don’t see them often, maybe a few times a season.
“That was the most unusual thing we’ve ever seen going on around here, and we’ve lived here 35 years,” says Carolyn.
So unusual, friends and family had a tough time believing them.
“Finally, finally, someone else saw them and said, ‘You’re not crazy after all!” laughed Carolyn. “... We’d been telling them for years.”
That was the day her son-in-law, Kevin Adams, and her three grandkids were over. He looked like a fat cat, with the funny bottom, says Jocelyn Adams, 10.
“I yelled at it so it wouldn’t come down,” she says. “I had just enough time to get a stepladder, set up the step ladder, and there I was, nose to nose with it, and I got a pretty good picture.”
Lest anyone consider their tree-dwelling chucks urban legend or spoof, Carolyn now had proof.
In fact, it’s a little-known fact that woodchucks can indeed climb trees, says John Van Niel, chairman of the conservation department at Finger Lakes Community College.
“We’re not discovering something new to science. The folks in Victor are seeing something that happens in nature but is rarely observed,” he says.
“I’ve only seen it twice in my life, and I look, hard.”
Woodchucks typically climb trees for two reasons — for food or in self-defense, says Van Niel. They have also been known to just rest in them, too, he says, which appears to be what they’re doing in the Franks’ lawn. The poplar, willow and apple tree would also be a good feeding place.
As their name suggests, woodchucks evolved as forest creatures, says Van Niel. That’s how they got their climbing ability, and their dark-brown coloring was camouflage.
There was even a study devoted to woodchuck climbing in Pennsylvania. It found that the majority of chucks don’t climb, but the ones that do climb often, says Van Niel. Is it genetic, or do they discover it on their own? Do their parents teach them? No one knows, he says.
It may even be that the Franks are witnessing a key piece of evolution. Could be, with climate change and other factors, climbing will be an important trait to the woodchuck’s adaptation for survival, says Van Niel.
“It’s a good example of something that seems odd to us but might be extremely important to species in the future,” he says.
The woodchucks come down the trees head first, by the way, says Bob.
Carolyn says some people thought they were mistaking squirrels for woodchucks. A member of the rodent family, they are actually most akin to squirrels. You can see it in their tails.
“If you think of them as big rats, they’re not so cute,” says Van Niel. “If you think of them as big fat squirrels, then they’re a little cuter.”
The Franks have come to enjoy their tiny Tarzans. And, says Carolyn, the guys in the tree are cute.
Contact Kris Dreessen at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 253, or firstname.lastname@example.org