Reckoning with woodchucks

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

Madison has not had enough public discussions about the role that woodchucks play in our local consciousness. Bear with me. I know that the most frequently seen rodents around town are rabbits, and I know that folks in Eken Park are convinced they have some sort of rat infestation. But if you get a good look at Marmota monax, also known as a groundhog, it tends to stick with you. Its broad range covers our entire state, and you can bet they’re around town. When these burrowing creatures come out into the open, they’re actually quite impressive. They resemble furious bunches of muscle, as if their very swoleness forces them to stick low to the ground. 

In theory woodchucks are herbivorous and aren’t dangerous unless they perceive a threat. In life, these creatures always look like they’re strutting around spoiling for a confrontation. I captured a video recently of one planting itself on a cement path in my apartment complex, and its posture proclaimed “come on, fuckers!” at least until it scurried away. A few months ago, I was driving on the far east side and saw a sign that declared “GROUNDHOG WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE!” Clearly these things are having some kind of effect on us that we haven’t fully reckoned with.

Even though there’s nothing special about being in the woodchuck’s geographic range, the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie is obsessed with them, declaring itself the “Groundhog Capitol Of The World.” Tone Madison‘s own Mark Riechers grew up there, and of all things his dad’s birthday is on Groundhog Day. “There’s a whole community of people whose birthday is on Groundhog Day, and they have a Groundhog Breakfast for those people,” Mark says. I’m having a hard time believing that, but Mark sent along this link about a Knights of Columbus Groundhog Ball as evidence. (Seems kind of pagan for a Catholic organization, no? See, something is seriously off here.) A former Sun Prairie mayor, Jonathan Freund, learned the hard way that woodchucks are not to be trifled with. During a 2015 Groundhog Day ceremony, one of the little varmint prophets bit him on the ear. Later that month, Freund lost re-election and the internet damned him to eternal humiliation. Look at the video of that bite. It’s not just a little nip. The critter gets in there and, with a few more seconds to work, could have ripped off a lot of cartilage.

Mark and another of my Tone Madison colleagues, Ben Munson, have learned that dealing with woodchucks is something of a rite of passage for new homeowners. Ben has one living under an old gazebo in his backyard, possibly lording it over some rabbits in a captive/cult kind of situation. “I texted my dad and said, ‘should I worry about this?'” Ben said. “It can be aggressive if cornered, is what he said.” He got a photo of it, hunkering down near some hostas and exuding rage. Nothing about this is good news.

Mark also had to get rid of a woodchuck in his own backyard. “He was trying to claim all the space that our dogs would usually take. He had to go,” Mark says. “We got a live trap and lured him into the live trap. As soon as you get an animal like that into a live trap, you have to get them, I think it’s 10 miles away, so they can’t find their way back…we drove out to an undisclosed location in Middleton and set the trap out and opened it, and then he just hissed and clicked as us for 10 minutes. We couldn’t get him out, so eventually we left and we went to Culver’s and got ice cream and came back. He was still in it. Then we went home and had to come back and get the trap the next day. So anyway, woodchucks are dicks.”

Wisconsin legalized hunting woodchucks in 2017. The bill was sponsored in the state legislature by a Republican, ambulatory bunion and anti-abortion maniac Andre Jacque, but even noted conservationist George Meyer told the Associated Press at the time that woodchucks are “tasty” when baked and served with rice. Let’s all keep a safe distance from these weirdly menacing muscle balls, especially when it’s cookout time, and consider chipping in for group therapy.


Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

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Tickets are now available for the inaugural Infamous Local Fest.

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: On August 28, Forward Madison fans will have no choice but to Stan(ley). Vinyl Me, Please profiles formerly Madison-based band Slow Pulp. Shaun Soman goes on the Impossible Burger hunt for WORT News. Edge Effects enters the pluriverseThe Capital Times previews Madison comedian Nick Hart’s Friday stand-up special recording at The Winnebago.

This week’s Madison calendar: El Valiente returns to Mickey’s TavernBrigsby Bear screens at Hawthorne Library. Andrew Trim plays Arts + Literature LaboratoryAnd more.

Upcoming Tone Madison Events!

Wednesday, September 11: Avola, Elrond, Saint Saunter, Woodman/Earhart. Communication, 8 p.m. 

September 14 and 15: Half-Stack Sessions and Tone Madison Stage at the 2019 Willy Street Fair. 

September 20 through 22: Infamous Local Fest at The Winnebago and Communication.

December, date TBD: Tone Madison Best of 2019 Listening Party

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