The behemoth woodchuck ambled a few yards into the pasture and munched on a patch of white clover. It was a 90-degree July afternoon, and the succulent clover was temptation enough to lure the fat chuck from its hole.
I watched for a few minutes until the woodchuck decided the heat was too much and slowly meandered back to the entrance of its den.
There’s nothing unusual about seeing a woodchuck in a field, but this instance was a bit unique. When they’re out in the open, woodchucks are extremely wary. In between mouthfuls of grass they constantly raise their heads searching for danger. If something seems out of place, a chuck doesn’t hesitate to make a quick beeline for the safety of its den.
But this particular chuck – which had quite a bit of girth – was very lackadaisical. It didn’t appear sick, but rather simply beaten down by the heat like the rest of us.
I’m not complaining about the hot summer we’ve experienced this year. I’ll miss the 90-degree heat and bright sun during those gray February days when winter seems like it will never end.
Still, just like the cold and snow poses a challenge to wildlife, so does the heat and sun.
While we have the luxury of cranking up the air conditioner to beat the heat, wildlife has to cope in other ways.
A recent walk through some farm fields and a swamp provided a few examples.
A hen turkey brought her 13 poults into a cut hayfield to feed on insects under the hot sun. From my vantage point behind a tree, I watched as the poults energetically chased and gobbled insects without showing any ill effects of the heat.
The hen, however, took it easy. She stood still, allowing body heat to dissipate from her unfeathered head and neck. The hen also panted for brief spells and even fanned her wings out to allow the breeze to penetrate her feathers.
In a woodlot nearby I could make out the heads of two deer bedded down underneath thick evergreens. The tree canopy offered plenty of shade for the deer, which were content to wait out the afternoon heat while patiently flicking their ears to scatter flies.
While the farmland wildlife was managing pretty well in the heat, I decided to check out a large swamp nestled deep in a hollow to see how the aquatic life was coping with the heat.
It was a different story.
As I approached the edge of a pond in the middle of the swamp, it appeared that life was on hold. The songbirds were quiet, floating logs were devoid of basking turtles and I couldn’t spot a single frog perched on the water’s edge.
The only sign of life was offered by the dozens of dragonflies that darted through the air and buzzed the pond’s surface without fear. For it seemed that the heat was even too much for the largemouth bass, that normally would be ready to smack the surface and gulp a dragonfly.
As the afternoon waned, I made one last trip to the pasture to see if the chuck had returned. He didn’t, and after a brief search along the edge of the woods I could see why. I found the entrance to the chuck’s den tucked under the shade offered by a stand of sassafras. The fresh dirt mounded around the hole was surprisingly cool, and I suspected that things were even cooler deep down in the earthen den.
Taking a cue from the chuck, I took a seat nearby and waited out the afternoon heat under the shade of the sassafras. No, it wasn’t as cool as sitting in front of an air conditioner, but when it comes to beating the July heat any bit of shade will do.