Celebrate National Groundhog Day by joining Master Gardeners with a table discussion about these and other Hudson Valley furry wildlife including moles, voles, chipmunks, bears and raccoons. Join Heidi Bock (Trekking the Trails) on a virtual winter hike to Drowned Lands Swamp, one of the Columbia Land Conservancy’s nature trails. Then be entertained and informed by Jean Thomas (It’s All Greek) as she clarifies acronyms such as IPM, GMO, and jargon such as plant ‘habits’.
Hosts: Tim Kennelty and Jean Thomas
Interview Guests: Jean Thomas, Tim Kennelty, Linda Aydlett and Teresa Golden
Photo by: Tim Kennelty
Groundhogs and Other Furry Wildlife: Woodchucks (psu.edu) ; Moles (psu.edu); Voles (psu.edu); Chipmunks (psu.edu); Raccoon factsheet (wildlifecontrol.info) ; Black Bears (psu.edu); Remove or "Take" Nuisance Animals Legally - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation ; Legend & Lore | Punxsutawney Groundhog club ; Mayor defends keeping Wiarton Willie's death a secret | CTV News ; How to control moles and reduce turfgrass damage // Missouri Environment and Garden News Article // Integrated Pest Management, University of Missouri
It’s All Greek:: Welcome | New York State Integrated Pest Management (cornell.edu) ; Etymonline - Online Etymology Dictionary; Plant Information | Chicago Botanic Garden ; Plant Finder (missouribotanicalgarden.org)
Welcome to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. Our team's goal is to present science based information about gardening and all things nature in New York's Hudson Valley. Hosts Jean and Tim, along with team members, Teresa and Linda, are Master Gardener Volunteers for New York's Columbia and Greene Counties. So if you're interested in gardening, or nature, or nuggets of information about what's happening outside your door, settle in, enjoy the conversation. Whatever the season, we have something to say.
Jean: Hi, this is Jean.
Tim: Hi. And it's Tim. And we're here to talk about our winter adventures today. Oh, my goodness! What about those ice storms? It's crazy, right? Winter is not easy, not only because there's no garden, but because it's slippery. Right? And I have a bear coming up onto my deck eating like bird feed and eating my wreaths with winterberries on it. So it's crazy. The critters are crazy, too.
Jean: Maybe you could feed him some serotonin. He's an insomniac.
Jean: This is the middle of the winter, and he should be sleeping.
Tim: I know, we've talked about this. The animals are just not following the rules this year, are they?
Jean: No, there's a whole lot of furry critters that we're doing battle with.
Tim: And we're having a roundtable today on this topic, on all kinds of squirrels and skunks and bears and groundhogs and how we deal with them. Right?
Jean: That's right, Linda and Teresa are going to join us and we're going to compare notes on our expeditions into the world of furry warriors. And we're going to top it off with the king of all furry warriors, especially this time of year, MR. GROUNDHOG.
Tim: Yeah, love them and hate them. Right?
Jean: Yeah, it's just going to be a fur fest.
Tim: I can't wait. Yeah, it's gonna be great. Stay tuned for that. And also, Heidi Bock is joining us for her first episode of Trekking the Trails. She's from the Land Conservancy. And she's going to talk about going to different public conservation sites and what you'd see there at this time of year.
Jean: And they're local, so we can just sort of wander around and explore and discover them.
Tim: She's going to talk about one of your favorite subjects, Jean.
Jean: Oh, I'm so excited. I adore lichens. And I especially like when the people called into the phone line want to know about this disgusting things that are eating their trees.
Tim: You're a lichen freak, right?
Jean: I am a lichen freak.
Tim: Lichens are really, really fascinating. So that's going to be a really good episode to listen to. And then the final piece is, let me think who is doing the final piece this week?
Jean: Oh, let's see. That would be our resident Latin scholar.
Tim: Our famous Jean, you.
Jean: Um hum.
Tim: But this is really great, because you're going to talk about all that Greek terminology, the way we identify plants and all those acronyms that people really love to hate, right?
Jean: Yeah, cuz people yammer on when they talk about their gardens, and they drop phrases like GMO and IPM. And nobody knows what they're talking about even those who are dropping the phrases. So we're going to clear a little bit of that up. And we're also going to listen to me venting because I hate acronyms.
Tim: And the Latin piece is really important because there are so many plants that have the same common name. So when somebody says Rose of Sharon, you don't always know what it means. So the Latin's really important to learn, if you can. I took a course in botanical Latin at New York Botanical Garden a few years ago, and I think I remember, let me think, none of that. But it's important.
Jean: Tim used to be a lawyer in a previous life.
Tim: Yeah, yeah, well you know, the brain does age. But Latin is important also, because a lot of times the Latin name will indicate something about the plant. And so it's pretty logical, right?
Jean: Absolutely. They're descriptive of the plant. They're descriptive of the source of the plant. And a lot of times they're descriptive about a really interesting story about the person who supposedly discovered the plant.
Tim: Yeah, so it's there's a lot there that people, I think, don't realize. As long as I don't have to pronounce the Latin, I think I'm fine.
Jean: Yeah, we don't need to do it out loud.
Tim: So I think what we're saying is there's a lot to listen to on this episode, right?
Jean: Yeah, we better get started.
Tim: Yeah, we better shut up and get going.
Tim: Hi, and welcome to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. If you're hearing this, it must be near Groundhog Day. So we decided to talk about groundhogs and some of their fellow warriors in the battle for our gardens. When you're a gardener, sometimes it seems like you're living in that Bill Murray movie. Every day you're fighting the same battle against groundhogs and/or chipmunks, moles, voles, raccoons and even bears.
Jean: We're purposely leaving out deer in this discussion because they're an entirely different battle. We're also not discussing birds because today we're sticking to furry friends. The other critters were putting aside for another day includes squirrels, which are such a massive problem in many areas that they deserve a separate discussion. Skunks aren't famously a garden pest and they're nomadic anyway. Their most obvious participation is when they dig holes in our lawns, digging out bees and grubs. Porcupines are usually only dangerous to trees and/or wood structures and certain dogs, and can sometimes be a forest pest.
Linda: Master Gardeners can help with all of the above. Hotline and email info can be found at ccecolumbiagreene.org.
Teresa: So let's discuss our Groundhog Day hit list. We're saving the groundhog, also known as the whistlepig, the woodchuck, the marmot, or the land beaver, for last.
Tim: Let's work from the ground up. Moles and voles are little guys that most of us can't tell apart, nor do we really want to. Here's a little mnemonic to help - moles eat meat and voles eat veggies. Of course, here meat means insects and worms. And of course, when they're hungry enough, either will expand their menu. The conflict arises when competition for habitat happens. Moles usually do just fine when they stay on the perimeter of the lawn or garden. Once in a while, they go exploring and start to make their tunnels into the lawn or garden. And they bore through that nice soft earth. They throw up dirt volcanoes and make ridges in the ground. Fortunately, their population usually stays small. Removal is a challenge. There are spike traps that will kill them. And there are catch and release traps, either of which are awkward to deal with and messy to work. There are poison baits that can be used and when correctly applied are quickly effective. Some even are shaped like tasty little worms. I'm an advocate of stamping down their tunnels myself until they get the hint. It's therapeutic to me at least and they don't often remain for very long.
Jean: Voles are very similar to moles, and it's hard to tell the difference, but you have to know which one you're battling to win. The tunnels are different and the marks are at the ground line or in irregular patches. They're not in ridges like what moles make and they don't throw cones of dirt. The trails are most noticeable when the snow melts in the spring because they've been dining on the grass and tunneling under the snow. Voles are more active above ground too than moles. My dog loves to chase them. Often they gnaw on tree bark wherever the snowpack allows them to reach the bark. Mousetraps and repellents are very effective and trees can be protected with easily available plastic tree guards. If moles or voles are persistent, and you're desperate, hardware cloth or metal fencing to about a foot deep around whatever you're protecting will be a deterrent.
Teresa: The third small pest is the adorable chipmunk. If they behaved more like Chip and Dale, the Disney ones, they maybe might be tolerable. But, they don't. They climb. They can climb trees if they want, but they'd rather climb your tomato plant and take one bite from the best tomato. Or, get inside the walls of your house and bowl in the middle of the night with hickory nuts. Here's some really scary news. A mature chipmunk can have a territory up to one half an acre, with burrows up to 30 feet long and three feet deep. A formidable foe indeed! They are best dealt with by modifying the environment. You can find entry points into buildings and block them. You can apply repellents, which may need to be repeated. Rat traps are very effective when placed with the chipmunks run. But please don't poison them. Chipmunks are a very important link in the food chain and can be toxic to a predator we need if they have poison in their system.
Linda: Onward and upward. The rabbit is another furry foe. Here's an interesting bit of trivia. All of the other small creatures we discussed so far are rodents. Rabbits are classified as rodents until 1912. But now they're lagomorphs. Huh! These former rodents are also as cute as can be. But don't let looks deceive you. They're all hungry, all the time. Rabbits like to browse on woody plants in the winter. In the garden will eat just about anything. They may avoid herbs and there's rumor they don't eat tomatoes, but my research indicates the rabbit started that rumor. The best control is to use fences at least two feet high that are tight to the ground or buried several inches. Use tree wrap where appropriate and apply repellents when a crop is coming ripe.
Tim: Now to bigger beasts that live more of their lives above the ground. Raccoons and bears are not rodents. They're both omnivorous and quite clever. The raccoon perhaps seems clever because it has the use of very agile hands. They're opportunistic nesters and make their homes in abandoned buildings or caves or even hollow logs. They're happy with a nice hole in the ground if the size is right. Our local black bears like all the same things that lack the finesse of a raccoon, so the damage may be more brutal. Raccoons and bears are not particularly susceptible to repel ants because they already like smelly, rotted stuff to eat. Noise and light alarms have some effect on raccoons, but you can be sure they will get to your crops, whether grapes or corn at the peak of their protection.
Linda: So I have a story about how incredibly smart and agile a raccoon can be. Many, many decades ago, a friend and I went back country camping for a few days in the Shenandoah National Forest. The ranger who checked us in advised us to tie our food up high into a tree to keep the wild animals out of our tenting area. So after hiking a while and settling into a spot along the trail, we did just that. We found a sturdy branch a good 20 feet up, threw a rope over and pull up a small duffel bag with all our food. In the middle of the night we were woken to the sound of something walking around the campsite, which is pretty spooky when it’s pitch dark out and you're the only ones in the middle of a deep forest.
Anyway, we pulled out a flashlight and timidly looked around from the tent opening. Lo and behold, the beam revealed that a raccoon had made its way up the tree exactly where the food had been hung. Its arm was extended up to its shoulder down into our duffel bag, trying to pull out whatever could grab what a rookie mistake we made! We had pulled the bag right up against the branch, which put it within easy reach.
We managed to scare it off and the next night made sure we dropped the duffel bag a good four or five feet down. Again, we were walking to noises outside the tent. And again, we shone a flashlight into the tree. You guessed it, a raccoon, probably the same one as the night before, was up on the branch trying to get into our food. But what we saw next just totally blew us away. Instead of just blindly reaching for the bag, the raccoon was patiently pulling the rope up, hand over hand, over hand, over hand and had that bag of food up in its mitts in no time.
The point is raccoons are incredibly clever little beasties who will work a problem over and over until they succeed. So you really have to raccoon proof trash cans, chicken coops in any other outdoor food sources they might be interested in.
Jean: Bears are immune to subtlety, you can't really scare them if they're focused on something. The main thing to remember with bears is their memory. If they feasted on your garbage can or bird feeder once, they'll keep returning to see if the treats are there again. So the best way to avoid bears is prevention. Don't make your garbage easily available and don't leave bird feeders up all summer. Live type traps can work on raccoons. They can't work on bears unless it's DEC handling them. But disposal of the trapped animal anyway maybe more trouble than it's worth. It's illegal in New York to release a trapped animal on any property but your own. So if you don't enjoy a foot race with an animal to see who gets home sooner, you probably shouldn't try live traps. Another important thing to remember with both the raccoon and the bear is that they are protected and have specific hunting seasons.
Teresa: So now we come to the star of our show - Mr. Groundhog, also known as woodchuck, whistlepig, land beaver or marmot. They're in the ground squirrel family along with chipmunks and prairie dogs. They are not the same as a hedgehog or a gopher. These are adorable as babies, sitting along the roadside chewing grass. However, a whole family tromping across your lawn is not adorable. They are not shy and will find a home in any kind of hole that seems big enough. From that initial hole, they will build a complex tunnel with multiple chambers and many exits. They will eat any vegetation and eat it right to the ground. They're awesome diggers and skilled climbers. The good news is that a properly constructed fence can deter them. The fence must be a minimum of four feet in height and extend at least a foot below ground level. Bending the lowest and highest part of the fence outward increases the challenge to the animal. The even better news is that they are true hibernators, who go into their dens in October and stay until about February. I mean late February. Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is in its own time zone, I think
Jean: About Punxsutawney, we did a little research. Want to know more about Punxsutawney Phil? Listen to this. The little guy lives in a special borrow built for him at the town's public library. He only goes out for special occasions. Want to know how the tradition started? It started with the tradition of Candlemas Day, halfway between the shortest day of the year and the equinox. There have been celebrations of the date from even before Christianity because it's the halfway point to spring. In Punxsutawney, the early settlers celebrated Candlemas Day and over time, in the 1800s, somehow a German tradition about hedgehogs worked its way into the story, and Brer Groundhog took the stage. By 1887, his name was changed to Phil and the celebration was first moved to Gobblers Knob to accommodate the crowds.
Linda: So how does the prediction work again?
Jean: If he sees his shadow, because the sun's so bright, there will be six more weeks of winter. So a cloudy day in February is a good omen for an early spring.
Linda: Oh, and all of this is totally unscientific, right?
Jean: Yep. The part about the shadow thing is unproven by any scientists. All the other stuff about the arming of furry warriors is true. If an infestation of any of these characters is overwhelming, call us or New York State DEC to find a licensed Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator (an NWCO). And Punxsutawney Phil really lives at the library all year and we can visit him if we want. In fact, I feel a road trip coming on.
Tim: Wait, wait, I have a scandal to tell you about...
Teresa: Okay, we have a few minutes.
Tim: There's a cousin of Punxsutawney Phil in Canada. Actually, there are several but only one has a scandal. There's a groundhog called Wharton Willie. And he's been predicting weather for about 60 years. In 2021, Willie didn't appear at the festivities but the mayor said he told her there'd be an early spring. But - Willie had died just before the event from an abscessed tooth. So they hid his death from the public for almost a year.
Teresa: Why would they do that?
Tim: Well, Willie was an albino. Do you know an albino woodchuck is very, very rare? They couldn't replace him at all. Fortunately, the officials fessed up and hired a new woodchuck for the job. He's brown, but they say he's very, very good at his job.
Jean: Okay, Teresa. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
Teresa: A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck if a wood cut chut ... [laughter]
Let's try again! A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.
Linda: Until next time, Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley.
You're listening to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley.
Stay tuned for Trekking the Trails.
Heidi: Welcome to Trekking the Trails, a recurring segment of this podcast they will focus on what you might see when you take a walk this time of year. I'm Heidi Bock with the Columbia Land Conservancy. Approximately once a month I'll take you on a virtual visit to a public conservation area and highlight some of the interesting things you might encounter.
This month we visit the Drowned Land Swamp Conservation Area, a 114-acre property on County Route 3 in Ancram, named after the surrounding Drowned Land Swamp Wetland. There are two main trails on this property. The wetlands trail takes you along a wooded trail that overlooks the wetlands, while the Summit Trail features a 350-foot climb through a mixed hardwood forest to a knoll known locally as Old Croken.
If you venture out on the trails this time of year, you're not likely to see much in the way of color from leaves or flowers. However, the absence of this vegetation makes it easier to pay more attention to another source of color - mosses and lichens.
For this trek, we will walk along the wetlands trail where you're bound to notice an area with a jumble of fallen rocks at the bottom of Old Croken, the limestone knob that looms above. These rocks are covered with mosses and lichens, intermingled to create an interesting miniature ecosystem that is still quite active in the winter months.
Mosses are one of the most primitive plants and lack the vascular tissue they carry water and nutrients throughout the plant. Mosses appear to have stems and leaves, which absorb moisture from the air, but they also lack true roots, and instead have thread like structures called rhizoids that anchor them to rocks, logs or the ground. During the winter months, mats of tiny mosses continue to grow quite happily whenever the temperature is above freezing. There are upwards of 22,000 species worldwide, and they're able to live nearly anywhere on the planet. There are more than 450 species in New York State alone. Mosses are what are known as indicator species. Their presence or absence can be used to learn about soil conditions, pollution levels, mineral content and past climatic conditions.
Lichens on the other hand are not actually plants at all. But a symbiotic partnership of fungi and algae, or an algae like bacteria called cyanobacteria. The fungi provide the shelter to live in, while the algae provides the food through photosynthesis. Lichens can take on many different colors and forms, with more than 800 types being found in New York State alone. The three main kinds are crustose - they have small flaky crust; folios, which have flat leaf light growths; or fruticose, which look like miniature shrubs.
Both mosses and lichens play an important role in the ecosystem. The spongy moss helps keep tree roots saturated during hot summers, while lichens help slowly break down rocks into smaller pieces, adding essential nutrients back into the forest soils. Lichens and also give important clues about air quality and the age of the forest they're growing in. There's a great post about this from our friends at the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program that we'll link to in the show notes.
As you meander along the wetlands trail to a bench that overlooks the Punch Brook running through the Drowned Land Swamp, make note of the variety of shades of green you are seeing this winter.
For more than 30 years, the Columbia Land Conservancy has worked to inspire our community to more deeply connect with, respect, and protect the natural world. We collaborate with partners and volunteers to improve the health of the land, ensure a thriving farm economy, create environmental education opportunities, provide access to outdoor experiences and support municipal leaders and conservation minded decision making. To learn more visit clctrust.org or find us on Facebook and Instagram.
You're listening to Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley.
Stay tuned for It's All Greek to Me.
Jean: Hello, and welcome to It's All Greek to Me. I occasionally drop in for a visit to "Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley". We'll be talking about those phrases, jargon and acronyms we hear every day. I admit I was one of those who pretended to understand when somebody dropped a comment about IPM or GMOs into a conversation. I once studied Latin so I feel a little more competent there, but I never knew plants had 'habits'.
Each visit we'll unravel a few of these language mysteries, a couple of acronyms and a little jargon, along with a Latin name or two. Today's feature is IPM. This means integrated pest management. It's a style of pest control that began in the 70s as a reaction to the damage done by excessive chemical usage in farming and home pest control. The goal is to do the least harm to the environment while protecting a particular crop. So instead of a crop duster plane flying over a field, the crops are inspected regularly and the pest, disease, insects, and animals are prevented from developing large enough populations to do economic damage. Much less extreme measures are taken and unintended consequences can be avoided. Things like workers being harmed by working with dangerous chemicals.
Another lively phrase dropped by activists is GMOs. We think we're against them usually, but we're not really sure why. So here it is. In a nutshell, GMO means genetically modified organisms. Now mankind has been messing with the genetics of other organisms since we arrived on the planet. First, we grew plants with selective breeding. That means we chose the most desirable plants of a group to reproduce and kept selecting one generation after another. Then later on, we started crossbreeding. Then in the 70s again, the scientists found a way to introduce disease resistance, drought tolerance and uniformity of produce by altering the genetic structure of crops. Legal issues arose because of ownership of patents that resulted in lawsuits when pollen from GMO plants drifted onto non-GMO plants in neighboring fields. Making crops resistant to pesticides allowed more lavish use of pesticides and a resulting resistance to said pesticides among the targeted weeds. The sci-fi aspect of GMOs resulted in widespread fears of other unintended consequences among humans, such as cancer and extreme allergies. It's a fascinating subject, and there will be no doubt which side of the discussion a person is on if they refer to GMO in their conversation.
Also, what does it mean when someone talks about a plant's habit? Habit refers to the way a plant grows. An ivy plant would be described as having a creeping habit. A plant's habit is its expected style of growth. This is a clue to the mystery of tomatoes being determinate or indeterminate. You know how when you go to buy tomatoes, either plants or seeds, there's the description about the plant telling if it's determinate or not? I bet you pretended you knew! A determinant plant has a determinant habit, which means it will stop growing at a particular size. If the plant is indeterminate, that thing will possibly try to eat your garden and grow until only the frost can knock it back.
We haven't gotten to the biggest fear of many of us the dreaded Latin. But once you understand the reason for using Latin, it becomes a lot more fun. And it doesn't matter how you pronounce it, because first of all, most people don't use it out loud; and second of all, there are arguments between scientists all the time because it seems there are two schools of thought about the classical pronunciation. Okay, the main reason for using Latin is a little thing called binomial nomenclature. Good one, huh? Literally, it means naming things by two names and is a system of identifying plants or animals. Latin is a language accessible from all other languages, and it isn't a living language subject to constant changes. Every plant has a Latin name. For example, a maple is a member of the genus Acer, which is Latin for hard in reference to hard wood. The second name gives you the species that belongs to - it might be saccharum, which is sugar, or rubrum, which is red. There are many different maples, but once you know a botanical formal name, you have a lot of descriptive material available.
Talk to you next month.
That concludes another episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley. We would like to thank Sandra Linnell and Devin Connelly from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties for production support. And a special thank you to our listeners for joining us on this episode of Nature Calls: Conversations from the Hudson Valley.
You can find links to any of the topics mentioned in this episode at our website at ccecolumbiagreene.org. Comments and suggestions for future topics may be directed to us at email@example.com or on the CCE Master Gardener Volunteers of Columbia and Greene Counties' Facebook page.
For more information about Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties, visit our website at ccecolumbiagreene.org or visit us in Hudson or in Acra.
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Last updated May 3, 2023