Article Category: Rick LaClaire 2 Comments
Behold, the armadillo. Is there a more incongruous-looking beast? Claws like a mole. Skin like a reptile. A face like a possum and a tail like a pay phone cable. It’s as if a clown designed it on a bet. A strange diet to boot: worms, slugs, and bugs. They’ll even eat fire ants (spicy, I’ll bet).
Armadillos are not Florida natives. Decades ago, a few managed to escape a circus sideshow in Cocoa. Apparently they liked Florida, because now they’re all over the place. But is it me, or does it seem there are fewer of these creatures than there used to be? I recall seeing dozens of them in the median of I-95 in the early 80s. Now the only ones I see are squashed in the road. Which leads me to an interesting tidbit about armadillo behavior: when alarmed, they jump straight up, about a foot or so… which is the exact height of a car bumper. Kind of like Whack-A-Mole with automobiles.
They have other unique traits as well. They contract leprosy. They dig holes all over the place. And if buzzards are any judges of fine dining, they must taste good. I was once stuck in traffic on a two-lane stretch in West Melbourne. My window was down, and not four feet away I watched a buzzard wrench the eyeball out of one. It swallowed it with relish, then finagled the other socket. It was like watching a train wreck; disgusting, but I couldn’t turn away. That image haunts me to this day. Armadillos may or may not be gourmet fare, but their eyeballs… Ahem.
As odd and uninvited as they are, the lowly “Hoover Hog,” as the armadillo was known during the Depression, may have a place in Sunshine State ecology. They eat harmful grubs and move the soil. Up North, another “hog” occupies the soil-mover niche — the ubiquitous groundhog. And other than the fact that these two mammals dig holes, all remaining similarities end. The armadillo is in the, uh… Uh… Well, I’m not sure what animal family the armadillo is in. The weirdoids? But I do know this: the groundhog is a rodent, and a rather large one at that.
We knew them as woodchucks. Some called them gophers (wrongly) or marmots. My favorite colloquialism for the groundhog was “Whistle Pig.” Because they whistle, believe it or not, when alarmed. I’m not sure where the pig or hog name comes from. They look nothing like them, though at times they are fat. Perhaps they taste like pork; I wouldn’t know. The Indians ate a lot of them, that’s for sure. They ate more groundhog than venison, according to archaeological findings. I wonder how they caught them. Once the whistle goes off, they disappear like smoke. And they are very wary.
Farmers hated them. They ravenously ate hay, vegetables, corn seedlings, and the cobs themselves. But worse, they dug their burrows. All over the place. Cattle would supposedly blunder into them and break their legs. Every dairy cow I’ve ever seen always had its nose in the clover. I don’t see how they could miss spying a deadly chuckhole. Regardless, it gave us kids a reason to shoot ‘em. And that we did.
I was introduced to the princely sport of woodchuck hunting by my neighbor, Trooper Don. Trooper was a cop, a bona fide New York State Trooper, and was a lot of fun to know. He was young for a grown-up, had great stories, and loved to shoot. His favorite quarry was woodchucks. He had a wonderful rifle: a scoped bolt-action .222. This is where I will probably lose my non-hunting readership (Hi, Mom!). But I urge you to read on.
Trooper Don taught me how to “dry-gulch a chuck.” Yes, that’s as bad as it sounds. To dry-gulch an animal involves distance (it must not see you) and technology (a .222 — one of the fastest, flattest-shooting rounds ever devised). In essence, we were sniping.
There were only certain times when you could spot woodchucks. One was early spring, before the hay was up. Again, at first hay, which was near the end of June. That was a short window, but the chucks were healthier, fatter. They were positively bloated after the second hay, in early fall. That’s when they were biggest, but by then my hunting interests were for actual game rather than an animal classified as a “varmint.”
It was easiest in early spring. There was no cover for the animals yet, and they stood out like sore thumbs on the hillsides. We’d take Trooper’s old gold Pontiac and cruise the country roads, enjoying the warm sun and new green, till he’d say, “There’s one.” Then out came the .222.
Woodchucks average about 7 lbs. By fall they’ll weigh up to 10 or 12, but the springtime chuck has just awakened from hibernation. They’re hungry, and will forsake good sense for groceries. But, like I said, they were wary beasts. You had to have good eyes, like Trooper Don. Most shots were taken at over 300 yards, some as far as 400. Trooper was a deadeye.
When dry enough, he’d shoot prone by the roadside. If not, the Pontiac hood was the rest. The biggest thrill came when he’d say, “You take this one, Rick.” Dry-gulchers may be scoundrels, but it sure was fun. You’d only get one shot. That .222 had a loud bark, and those chucks would go underground for hours.
As I got older, I put a little more sport in my chuck-hunting and vowed only to take them with iron sights and a .22. That’s not a typo folks; it’s one less 2 than a .222, and about one-tenth its strength. This involved stalking to within effective range for a clean kill, which with a .22 is about 100 feet. I got good at it. I learned to use ridges and fencerows for cover. Learned how to crawl through wet grass and cowflops. I learned to hold my breath and pee downwind. Chucks taught me how to be a better hunter. They taught me stealth, patience, and perseverance. And disappointment…
My most memorable chuck-hunting experience didn’t even involve a woodchuck. It was a sunny April Sunday in 1969. My quarry was bolt-upright by a chuckhole in the very center of a bare hillside above a sprawling dairy farm. I crawled over barbed wire, 20 yards of blackberry prickers, through an ice-cold intermittent creek and a nasty bed of stinging nettles till I could crawl no further. There was no more cover. Only 100 yards of naked grass between me and my little brown dot of a target. A long shot indeed for a .22, but I felt I earned it. I squeezed and the animal flipped. Bingo!
Immediately, something wasn’t right. Yeah, I’d hit it, but what was that? A tail? Yes, woodchucks have tails, but they’re short squirrelly things. This tail was long and lush. I went to inspect. My heart flopped into my stomach. I had killed a cat.
It was a clean kill. A good shot with “Ol’ Betsy,” but I was not happy. Target identification is crucial in hunting. That’s why Trooper Don used a scope. I decided to ‘fess up and take whatever punishment was at hand. I collected the carcass and made for the farm below.
This was mid-afternoon, dinnertime on the family farm. The whole clan was there, kids, folks, and grand folks, just sitting down at the table. The old man met me at the door with a napkin tucked in his collar. A little girl ran up beside him. “He killed Fluffy!” she blurted tearfully. “I’m sorry,” was all I could say.
Dad shook his head, picked his front teeth with a thumbnail and said “Kid, let me show you something.” He stepped out and we walked to the barn. I couldn’t imagine what kind of filthy restitution he had in store. Farms were rife with nasty chores. He threw open the huge doors. The place reeked of manure and cow piss. n the center was a trough of sorts, narrow and long, filled with milk. Three dozen cats crowded around. “Tell you what,” the farmer said. “Come in here sometime and thin these guys out.”
I shot my last chuck when I was seventeen. It was windy and cool, the grass was mid-height, and I had company, my old buddy, Egg. I normally stalked chucks solo; a single presence was tough enough to conceal. I guess we were lucky that day. The wind was with us, and I had an old stone fencerow for cover. It was close and clean. He was big, about nine pounds, and I laid him on a rock to admire. “He’s kinda cute,” Egg remarked. He was right. And a healthy specimen too. Shiny fur, big belly… “What are you gonna do with it?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Food for the crows.”
“Kind of a waste,” Egg said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s a waste.” I never chuck-hunted again.
February 2nd is Groundhog’s Day. They made a movie about it once. It was mildly entertaining, but had very little to do with groundhogs. Southerners don’t realize the impact the groundhog tradition has on winter housebound Yankees. It’s the first glimpse of the light at the end of a frozen tunnel. It’s a day that says, “Take heart, to all suffering will come an end.” And that thought is embodied in a large whistling rodent whom I know for a fact would never venture from its burrow in February. It’s funny how myth can elevate a varmint. I’ve never heard anyone call an armadillo “cute.”