Woodchuck, Whistle-Pig, Land-Beaver - Everything You Would Ever Like to Know About Groundhogs in North America
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.
Where Are Groundhogs Found?
The United States
Alberta, British Columbia
District of Columbia
Where Do Groundhogs Live?
While Punxsutawney Phil lives a life of groundhog luxury at , 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? Gobblers Knob
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
NATURAL PREDATORS OF THE GROUNDHOG
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.