Woodchuck, Whistle-Pig, Land-Beaver - Everything You Would Ever Like to Know About Groundhogs in North America

The groundhogs natural habitat stretches from Idaho in the northwest, down to Alabama & Georgia in the southeast, up the eastern seaboard into Canada The Yukon, & Alasaka Photo: Ben Babcock, 7 Jul 2010 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.
The groundhogs natural habitat stretches from Idaho in the northwest, down to Alabama & Georgia in the southeast, up the eastern seaboard into Canada The Yukon, & Alasaka Photo: Ben Babcock, 7 Jul 2010 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed. | Source

What Do Groundhogs Look Like?

Groundhogs, (Marmota Monax), are mammals belonging to the Rodentia order, (which include mice, rats, and hamsters), and are the largest of the Sciuriade family, (which include squirrels, chipmunks, and marmots). While a mature groundhog who is residing in an area where he has few predators and an abundant supply of alfalfa may grow up to thirty inches in length, and weigh as much as thirty-one pounds, they are typically known to measure anywhere from sixteen to twenty-six inches in length, and weigh in between five and ten pounds. Groundhogs have a stocky build, short legs, and a tail that is of medium length. They have a broad and flattened head with short ears, and a blunt nose.

At approximately six inches in length, the groundhog's flattened tail varies in color from dark-brown to black, and is comparably shorter to that of its sciurid cousins, measuring only about one-fourth of its overall body length.

The short limbs of a groundhog are surprisingly powerful, allowing them to move with an unexpected speed and agility that is useful when escaping the threat of a predator. Their feet are equipped with curved thick claws that are well adapted for digging. Their feet, like their tails, are dark-brown to black in appearance, with their hind foot measuring between two and three-eighths to three and seven-eighths inches in length.

The groundhogs fur which is particularly suited for the cold and frosty winters of its North American habitat, has the distinct appearance of having been frosted, an effect achieved by the blending of what are actually two separate coats; a short dense undercoat of gray that is topped with a longer coat of banded coarse guard hairs ranging in color from blondish-brown to brown. The fur on the underside of the groundhog ranges in color from whitish-buff to grayish-brown, and whitish patches may randomly appear anywhere on the sides of the face, nose, lip, or chin.


Excellent excavators, a groundhog's burrow may have up to fifty feet of tunnel with one or more spacious den, and two to five entrance holes to provide easy above-ground escape routes.  Photo by:  kennethkonica, September 10, 2011
Excellent excavators, a groundhog's burrow may have up to fifty feet of tunnel with one or more spacious den, and two to five entrance holes to provide easy above-ground escape routes. Photo by: kennethkonica, September 10, 2011 | Source

Where Are Groundhogs Found?

The United States
Canada
Alabama
Alberta, British Columbia
Alaska
Labrador
Arkansas
Manitoba
Connecticut
New Brunswick
Delaware
New Foundland
District of Columbia
Nova Scotia
Georgia
Ontario
Idaho
Quebec
Illinois
Saskatchewan
Indiana
 
Iowa
 
Kentucky
 
Maine
 
Maryland
 
Massachusetts
The Yukon
Michigan
 
Minnesota
 
Mississippi
 
Missouri
 
New Hampshire
 
New Jersey
 
New York
 
North Carolina
 
North Dakota
 
Ohio
 
Oklahoma
 
Pennsylvania
 
Rhode Island
 
South Carolina
 
South Dakota
 
Tennessee
 
Vermont
 
Virginia
 
West Virginia
 
Wisconsin
 
Groundhogs are native to the northern half of the North American Continent. Absent from the desert southwest and the Great Plains of the United States, their natural habitat stretches from Idaho in the northwest, to Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana in

Where Do Groundhogs Live?

While Punxsutawney Phil lives a life of groundhog luxury at Gobblers Knob, where members of the Inner Circle, are charged his care and providing for his every whim, the average groundhog is not born into a live of such privilege. So where do groundhogs live?

Regions and Territories

Absent from the north and southwestern coastal states of California, Oregon, and Washington, from the desert southwest of Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona; The Great Plains, Texas, and the southeastern state of Florida, groundhogs are native to the northern hemisphere of North America where their natural habitat stretches from Idaho in the northwest, across Montana, the Dakotas, and Minnesota of the northern United States; continuing on into Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio in the Great Lakes region, down into Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana in the southeast, through the Carolinas, and heading up the eastern seaboard through New England, before continuing north throughout Canada, the Yukon, and into central Alaska.

Preferred Landscape

Generally known to be found in low-elevation wooded areas that are close to roads or streams, the groundhog is partial to the meadows, pastures, orchards and old fields commonly found near farmlands, or the hilly areas that border them. When choosing a location to call home, the groundhog will often choose a site that is very close to a barn or other human-built structure.

Building a Burrow

The typical groundhog prefers to do its sleeping, rearing of young and hibernating buried up to five feet beneath the earth, in the cozy confines of a spacious burrow that consists of a long tunnel that leads to one or two chambers or dens. Each of these dens measures between two and six feet in width and length. The dens of a burrow are lined with dry grass which adds padding, additional winter warmth, and a nest for the young when they are born in the spring.

Burrows can be identified by their eight to twelve inch main entrance, which typically has a mound of dirt, or "porch," in front of it. A second, and perhaps even a third hole, can usually be found within ten yards of the main entrance. These additional entrances, sometimes called "bolt holes" provide the groundhog with quick access for above-ground escape from predators. Finding the main entrance overgrown with grass or foliage usually indicates that the burrow is no longer active.

Excellent excavators, a groundhog is capable of moving approximately thirty-five cubic feet, or seven hundred and ten pounds of dirt during the construction of their underground home, and a single burrow has been known to have between fifteen and fifty feet of tunnel, each tunnel having a minimum of at least one or two right angles dug into it providing a strategic place for the groundhog to slash at a fox or other predator that might follow it underground.

Indigenous to areas where winters are cold and frosty, groundhogs will often times build separate burrows for winter and summer.

A favored location for the groundhogs summer burrow is in the middle of a pasture or meadow, allowing the animal the maximum opportunity to gorge themselves during the plentiful food season in preparation for the coming winter and hibernation.

A winter burrow must be dug below the frost-line to keep the temperature stable and above freezing during the often times below freezing temperatures of winter. When choosing a site for their winter home, they are fond of hedgerows and haystacks, and are careful to select a spot that has a slight rise or a gentle slope to ensure good drainage.

Groundhog burrows are often used for more than one season, but once abandoned, they are widely recycled into dens or homes for snakes, skunks, weasels, foxes, opossums, cottontails, and other animals.

Like their cousin the squirrel, groundhogs are often observed sitting upright while enjoying a snack, but unlike the squirrel, they do not bury their food, or store for later meals.  Photo by: John Kratz, August 22, 2006
Like their cousin the squirrel, groundhogs are often observed sitting upright while enjoying a snack, but unlike the squirrel, they do not bury their food, or store for later meals. Photo by: John Kratz, August 22, 2006 | Source

What Do Groundhogs Eat?

Groundhogs in the wild are mostly herbivorous, meaning that their primary diet consists of vegetation, although they are known to occasionally feast upon insects, snails, grubs, grasshoppers and from time to time, they enjoy a bird egg.

Capable of eating as much as three-fourths of a pound, or roughly ten percent of their body weight, each day, the groundhog typically eats twice a day during the late spring and summer months, with neither eating session lasting longer than two hours.

Groundhogs enjoy a varied diet of wild grasses, dandelions, clover, and alfalfa are among some of their favorites, and he also likes roots and tubers; but he is by no means above inviting himself to picnic in Farmer MacDonald's field, where he will certainly be happy to dine on a gourmet meal of wheat, corn, soybeans, carrots, peas and beans. Groundhogs have also been known to climb the orchard trees for an apple or a pear. As summer ends and winter approaches, a single groundhog with his voracious appetite, can lay to waste Mr. Farmer's fall crop, sampling singular bites out of several pumpkins and squash, and thus ruining them for sale.

Like their cousin the squirrel, they have a fondness for nuts and berries and have even been seen sitting upright when eating. Unlike their furry cousin, they do not bury their food to store for future use.

Although they are partial to digging their burrows close to streams, groundhogs actually drink very little water, most of their daily liquid intake is received via the dewy leaves of their daily diet of greens, fruits, and vegetables.

What Do You Call a Baby Groundhog?

Mating season for the groundhog follows hibernation, usually beginning sometime in between early March and mid to late April. Although considered sexually mature at one year of age, only a very small segment of the yearling population will actually breed in their first year, most do not choose a mate until in their second season.

Male groundhogs are poly-monogamous, meaning that they will mate each spring with more than one female. To get a jump on mating season, the male averages eight days less hibernation time, waking after roughly one hundred and six days of hibernation, (the female averages around one hundred and fourteen days), and uses this time to begin laying the groundwork for the courting process. Awakening from his long winter's nap, the male groundhog may wander out into the neighborhood to pay a perspective lady groundhog a visit, even spending a few days at her place as they get to know each other before returning to his own burrow, and in this way paving the way toward the mating season later in the spring.

When it comes to finding a mate, the older established male groundhogs generally hold court over a territory, while the younger males may travel long distances and even sometimes even travel at night, to find a mate. Groundhogs often whistle as a part of their courting ritual during mating season.

Though groundhogs are usually known to be solitary creatures, once they have picked a mate, the two will share a burrow for a brief honeymoon period during the thirty to thirty-two day gestation period, with the male moving out of the burrow just prior to the arrival of their off-spring. Males and females will then ignore each other until spring comes again.

Female groundhogs will only mate once annually, producing a liter of between one and nine babies, which are called kits or cubs. The babies, who are usually born sometime between mid-April and May, are about four inches in length when they are born, and come in to the world, naked, blind and completely helpless. They will not open their eyes until they are about four weeks old, and will not venture from the burrow until they are weaned at between five and six weeks of age. By mid-summer most young groundhogs, who are now considered teenagers, are ready to move out and dig their own burrow.

Do Groundhogs Really Hibernate?

What Is Hibernation?

Hibernation was once thought to be a natural instinct that triggered by the approach of the cold winter months. It is now a generally accepted theory that hibernation is signaled by autumn's shortened days and its decrease in daylight.

Other common misconceptions about hibernation are that it is a state of deep-sleep, and that there are many species who hibernate.

When hibernating, the subject is actually in a deep coma and will experience, a drop in its body temperature to within a few degrees of freezing, heart and respiration rates that plummet to nearly nothing, and blood that is scarcely flowing.

Groundhogs are one of the few species that actually hibernate.

When Do Groundhogs Hibernate?

In order to survive the winter, and still maintain enough body fat to sustain them until the warmer spring days again produce an acceptable supply of vegetation, groundhogs must enter into hibernation at their maximum possible weight.

Hibernation for most groundhogs begins in October, and can last until March, and in the most northern of regions, sometimes even into April. In most areas of the United States, groundhogs hibernate as little as three months, emerging from their burrows in late February.

When hibernating, a groundhog coils itself into a tight ball with its head resting on its abdomen and its hind legs and tail wrapped over the top of its head.

 Photo by: Ben Babcock, July 7, 2010
Photo by: Ben Babcock, July 7, 2010 | Source

Groundhogs and Humans

Do Groundhogs Make Good Pets?

"They're known for their aggression so you're starting from a hard place. Their natural impulse is to kill 'em and let God sort 'em out. You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly." - Doug Schwartz - zookeeper and groundhog trainer at the Staten Island Zoo, Staten Island, New York

While it is true that a groundhog who has been raised in captivity can be socialized, they are a wild animal whose very nature it is to be aggressive. Groundhogs are wild animals, and are therefore, best left in the wild. They are definitely not a great pet for children or amateurs, and you should NEVER capture a wild groundhog with the intention of making it into a family pet.

Groundhog Popularity

Groundhogs are pop-culture weather predicting icons in Canada and the United States, a status reached in equal parts of the yearly celebration of Groundhog's Day, (a modern-day spin-off of the observance of Candlemas Day, brought to North America by early Western European settlers), and good marketing. Worldwide recognition and popularity has been further increased by the 1993 release of the movie "Groundhogs Day."

The most well known groundhogs are;

Punxsutawney Phil, (namesake of King Phillip) who resides on Gobblers Knob, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and who, thanks to a secret elixir of life potion which he takes a sip of at the yearly Groundhog's Picnic, is now reported to have reached the ripe old age of one hundred and twenty-seven years.

Wiarton Willie, who reportedly lived to be twenty-two years of age, of Wiarton, Ontario, Canada, and who has since been succeeded by his son, Wee Willie.

General Beauregard Lee, who does his forecasting for the southeastern United States from his home at the Yellow River Game Ranch, just outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

Groundhogs and Farmers

As popular a weather and pop-culture icon as the groundhog might be, he is twice that in how unpopular he is with American and Canadian farmers.

Throughout North America the groundhog is considered to be a major agricultural pest. They not only damage crops, but their lazy nature leads them to see the farmer's already broken ground as an opportunity to build a new burrow, and therefore every fence post, and every newly planted sapling become fair game. This results in weakened fences, and the loss of several years growth for orchard trees that have had their roots trimmed by the groundhogs invasive tunneling. Burrows dug too close to buildings, may undermine the buildings foundation.

Their extensive burrows, when dug in Farmer Mac Donald's field, can undermine the ground to the point of causing ditches and holes wide enough and deep enough to break an axle or sheer an alignment pin off of tractors and cultivators, resulting in costly repairs and lost productivity. Old burrow holes become hazardous to livestock, when accidentally stepped into they may cause cattle and horses to break a leg, resulting in the death of that animal.

Groundhogs and Medical Research

When infected with Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus, the groundhog is at one hundred percent risk for developing liver cancer, because of this, groundhogs are often used by medical researchers for testing Hepatitis B and Liver Cancer therapies.

Groundhogs and Archaeological Discoveries

Groundhogs are known to favor loose soil, and attracted to the loose soil of the esker found at the Ufferman Site in Ohio, the digging of the local groundhogs has brought to the surface a significant number of bones and artifacts.

Groundhog Enemies

NATURAL PREDATORS OF THE GROUNDHOG
Bobcats
Bears
Foxes
Weasels
Rattlesnakes
Wolves
Coyotes
Large Hawks
Automobiles
In an area with few predators, and a large supply of alfalfa, the typical life expectancy of a groundhog in the wild can be about six years, with two to three years being the actual average.

Life as a Groundhog

So if you aren't famous like Wiarton Willie, or pampered like Phil, what is life like as a groundhog?

Sometimes called woodchucks, whistle-pigs, and land-beavers, groundhogs are considered to be diurnal, meaning that they are most active in the early morning and late afternoon. Except for during the breeding period, they are known to be primarily solitary creatures, who engage in limited social interaction. Territorial among their own species, they are known to be antagonistic and often aggressive in skirmishing to establish dominance, and though they prefer flight over fight, if their burrow is invaded by a predator, they will tenaciously defend it. When fighting, seriously injured, or caught by an enemy, they may squeal or bark.

When outside of their burrows, an individual groundhog is on high alert. Groundhogs have excellent sight, and in an area where a colony exists, it is a common to see one or more standing tall and erect on its hind feet as it watches for danger. If a threat is observed, or if a groundhog is frightened, the hairs on their tail will stand straight up making their otherwise flat tail, look like a hair brush, and they may give off a high-pitched whistle to alert the rest of the colony, (hence the nickname, "whistle-pig"). They are also proficient climbers, and will climb a tree to survey surroundings, or to escape from danger. Groundhogs are also accomplished swimmers.

Fastidious housekeepers, groundhogs are seemingly resistant to insects and the plagues that have been known to periodically wipe out large numbers of species in the wild, something that may be attributed to their cleanliness.

While the clearing of forests has decimated populations of animal species around the world, the opposite can be said for the groundhog. The clearing of forests in North America has actually provided a much more suitable habitat that has resulted in a population explosion, There is now a larger population of groundhogs in North America than at any other time in history.

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Comments 25 comments

Esmeowl12 profile image

Esmeowl12 4 years ago from Sevierville, TN

What an informative hub. I love groundhogs.


North Wind profile image

North Wind 4 years ago from The World (for now)

All I knew about groundhogs before this was that they single if winter is over or not and that they are cute :) Thanks to this hub I know a lot more now. They do resemble squirrels. They look like chubby squirrels.


Robin profile image

Robin 4 years ago from San Francisco

What an extensive groundhog Hub! I loved it! I had no idea that groundhogs were one of the few animals that actually hibernate. Is there a difference between groundhogs and gophers?


NA the great profile image

NA the great 4 years ago

Too much insight knowledge. it appears as if your heart pounds for groundhogs


CarliFrenneman profile image

CarliFrenneman 4 years ago

A groundhog licked me once. True story.


anonymous 4 years ago

@Esmeowl12 - They are awfully cute! Thank you for the generosity of your time and your comments, they are both welcomed and appreciated.

Kristen


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@North Wind - I was thinking that groundhogs look as though they could be the child of a squirrel and a beaver. My thanks as always, for the generosity of your time and for your comments, they are welcomed and very appreciated.

Kristen


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@Robin - When comparing them in photos, the groundhog and the gopher do appear to be very similar, but they have many differences; Groundhogs are much larger than gophers. Gophers are docile when compared to the aggressive nature of the groundhog. While the groundhog can only produce one liter of offspring annually, the gopher can produce two liters. Groundhogs are avid swimmers, but gophers often drowned when their tunnels are flooded. Groundhogs are across the board considered to be agricultural pests, but gophers can be beneficial in the garden. Both are burrowing mammals of the Rodentia order,but while the groundhog is a member of the Sciuridae family, which includes squirrels and chipmunks, the gopher is a member of the Geomyidae family, which I think makes them distant cousins. Another interesting fact about the gopher is that while some of the Sciuridae squirrels are mistakenly labeled as being gophers, true gopher species make up the entire Geomyidae family. Thank you for the generosity of your time and your comments they are both welcomed and appreciated.

Kristen


Pintoman profile image

Pintoman 4 years ago

I was whistled at by one last summer while backpacking. He was up on a rocky hillside. I had never heard one, they are very, very, loud. I suppose he didn't like us walking through his meadow.


Moon Daisy profile image

Moon Daisy 4 years ago from London

When I lived in France, a long time ago, I was walking to college when I saw this big furry creature in someone's garden. I had no idea what it was, and I just stood there for ages, fascinated.

I couldn't describe it to anyone as it was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and so I had no terms of reference for it! I've since learnt that it was a marmot, which is the same as (or similar to?) to a groundhog.

It was really an amazing creature, and from then on I have loved them. I would even love one for a pet if it were possible! Thanks for this interesting hub which brought back that lovely memory of my first groundhog. :)


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@NA the great - Is there really anything as too much knowledge? LOL :) Thank you so much for the generosity of your time and your comments, they are both very welcomed and appreciated.

Kristen


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@CarliFrenneman - Thank you for the generosity of your time and your comments, they are both welcomed and appreciated!

Kristen


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@Pintoman - I have never actually heard one myself, but I have heard that their whistle is both loud and shrill. They are known for being very territorial with their own species, but it is just as likely that you startled him, as they will also whistle when frightened. Thank you so very much for the generosity of your time and for your comments, they are both welcomed and deeply appreciated.

Kristen


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@Moon Daisy - Groundhog or woodchuck are the common names for the North American burrowing Marmot, or Marmota Monax. Groundhogs are the largest and also the only asocial species of all marmots. I agree with you that they are fascinating to look at, researching this hub I earned a whole new respect and appreciation for them. Thank you for the generosity of your time and for your comments, they are both welcomed and deeply appreciated.

Kristen


Ruchira profile image

Ruchira 4 years ago from United States

hi kbd,

love the overview. gotta bookmark it for my kid. he was curious esp with this day arriving...

thanks!

voted up as interesting :)


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@Ruchira - You are very welcome, I am always glad to help. Thank you for the gift of your time your comments, and the votes, they are both welcomed and appreciated.

Kristen


Pintoman profile image

Pintoman 4 years ago

He was too far away to be startled, he was telling us to get out. : )


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@Pintoman- Well you were in his meadow! lol :)


Jackie Lynnley profile image

Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

Such a heartwarming story. I have seen these but they scare me. lol


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@Jackie Lynnley - They have the most adorable faces, but you are probably smart for keeping your distance as they are the known for being aggressive when they feel threatened. Thank you for the generosity of your time and for your comments they are both welcomed and deeply appreciated.

Kristen


Natashalh profile image

Natashalh 4 years ago from Hawaii

Really in-depth information. Thanks!


K. Burns Darling profile image

K. Burns Darling 4 years ago from Orange County, California Author

@Natashalh - Sorry for the delay in response, my home network has been down for several days now, and so I have been a way from HP and my computer. When I started the research for this hub I had no idea how much information there really was about groundhogs... I now have a soft-spot for them in my heart! Thank you for the gift of your time and for your generous comments, they are both welcomed and deeply appreciated.

Kristen


Lynn Smilow 22 months ago

Have a groundhog in my backyard in La Qunta, CA near Palm Springs in the desert). Be glad to send you pix.


Lieve Snellings 18 months ago

As I am making a photo childrensbook on groundhogs I was very interested in your article. It is a really good article !

I do have two questions I want to ask :

1) I thought that male and female just stayed a copple of nights togethher per year. Here in this article the author says it can be up to 4 weeks. The male will leave before the kits are born... So do I need to adjust my text

2) is it correct the pregnacy takes 28 days

Thank you so much

Lieve Snellings


Henry Butler 5 months ago

This was probably the most informative article I have ever read. A groundhog wandered across my yard today and I took it's picture and made a video of it. Sending the video/pictures out with a "What is this?" subject, several people answered back that it was a Woodchuck. One sent me the link to this story. I enjoyed reading it very much and as I said it's probably the most interesting and informative article I've ever read.

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