I’ve been procrastinating on an article for this site for at least three months. I was going to write a brief review of a couple of ecologically-minded books; I even wrote two drafts–but, I ramble and you don’t care. Either produce content or shut up, you’re thinking. So, here ya go.
Woodchuck, groundhog, land beaver, and yes, whistlepig are all common names for the largest member of the squirrel family. This rodent, which not only has a national day set aside for it (unlike the faux holidays like Amphibian Awareness Day or Walleye Days) also has a movie named for it’s day.
For the record, “The Gopher” in Caddyshack, looks more like a groundhog than a gopher. Feel free to debate me. I don’t think the filmmakers consulted an ecologist.
Pocket gopher or “true” gopher
Ground squirrel, frequently called a “gopher” but in a different family
Gopher, woodchuck, or Mendelian hybrid?
The groundhog or woodchuck, I refer to them by both names depending on the stage of the lunar cycle or whether it’s a leap year or not, is known as Marmota monax, which if Google Translate is to be believed, means “Woodchuck chuck.” Which if you know that old saying, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck…” seems awfully serendipitous to me or else the taxonomer had an ironic sense of humor.
As mentioned they are related to squirrels, in the sciuridae family, and are really just a large ground squirrel. They are found all over the eastern US as far south as northern Alabama and extend up into Canada further west than the US, but can even be found in Alaska.
The name “Woodchuck” is probably a bastardization of the Algonquian wuchak.
What’s This Thing Look Like?
Woodchucks are stocky with short legs and a bushy tail. Both sexes are similar, though males are slightly larger. Their fur is brown with some white giving a grizzled appearance–but albino and black individuals can be occasionally spotted.
The forefeet have long, curved claws (“the better to dig holes with, my dear.). The teeth include chisel-like incisors. The eyes, ears, and nose are positioned on the head as to allow them to peer out of the safety of their burrow just over the edge.
From head to tail, on average they span 20-27 inches and usually don’t weigh over 14 pounds; males tend to stay in the 5-10 pound range.
These be tracks of the beast.
This Land Is My Land
Woodchucks construct burrows anywhere from 8-66 feet in length with multiple exits and chambers (including one dedicated to defecation). These burrows can be found on the edge of a forest, in fields, and hedgerows, and in people’s backyards. They prefer being near open land.
As should be obvious, they have adapted well to human activity, being found near cleared land, road projects, and agricultural enterprises.
They love your lawns and gardens, people!
Muskrat Groundhog Love
They breed in late February (after their holiday, of course) or March, first beginning when they approach two years of age. Usually solitary, reproduction is one of the few times they hang out together.
Two to five kits are born in April or May with only one litter per year. The kits remain with the mother for about two months. After which time they are told to get out and get a job.
Them’s Good Eatin’
Beans, corn, peas, carrots, cucumbers, and even flowers will be sampled from your garden by the whistlepig. Clover, grass, soybeans, and alfalfa in other areas. Like their cousins, the squirrels, they can climb trees to grab an apple, pear, or nuts. And while they are generally herbivores, sometimes in the spring, before much has greened up, they will chomp on protein in the form of snakes and insects.
As a rodent, the woodchuck’s incisors continually grow. Thus they need to gnaw on wood or nuts to simultaneously sharpen and file the teeth down.
“Mom told you to keep gnawing. Now look what happened.”
Their diets are affected by seasonal availability, hence the need for hibernation.
Little Did They Know…
- Elderly for a woodchuck is seven years of age. On average, in the wild they live three to six years.
- They are active from spring to fall and begin hibernation in October where their body temperature drops from 99 degrees F to 40 and their heartbeat slows from 80 bpm to only 5.
- Woodchucks can swim!
- They can be found sunning themselves.
- Most states list them as a game animal. I’ve eaten smoked woodchuck; it wasn’t bad.
- Have you ever observed one walking? They waddle.
- My first experience with hard cider was with Woodchuck. I used to love that stuff, now my palate has grown. It’s a bit like moving from Stroh’s or Miller to a microbrew.
You may find the woodchuck a pest as farmers, my father-in-law, and my neighbor do, but remember they are part of your neighborhood. If you can deter them from your plants, let them be a fuzzy neighbor to you.
Photo by Jaliya G. Rasaputra
Lastly, as you contemplate just how much wood a woodchuck could chuck if it had the ability to do so, click this link for a better verbal homage to this posting’s rodent.