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  • These rodents frequent the areas where woodlands meet open spaces, like fields, roads, or streams.

  • Woodchucks are closely related to squirrels, and they actually can climb trees and also swim. (iStock)

  • In the spring, females welcome a litter of perhaps a half dozen newborns, which stay with their mother for several months. (photo: Cape Wildlife Center)

  • Groundhogs in the wild eat succulent green plants, such as dandelion greens, clover, plantain and grasses.

  • Groundhogs go into profound hibernation when it gets cold, greatly reducing their metabolic rate.

  • These rodents live a feast-or-famine lifestyle and gorge themselves all summer to build up plentiful reserves of fat.

If happiness is measured in terms of flourishing, then woodchucks—you may know them as groundhogs or whistle-pigs—are the envy of the animal kingdom. Few wildlife species have found human alteration of the landscape as easy to accommodate as has the woodchuck; in fact, in some ways they have actually benefited from living near us.

The growth of our farms and neighborhoods has created more woodland edges, the woodchuck's preferred habitat, and they find great quantities of delicious food in our fields and gardens. No wonder they generally live in harmony beside us.

Well, almost. Their burrows under our decks and outbuildings have not endeared the woodchuck to some, and their eating habits—dining on our flowers, fruits, and vegetables—have inspired harsh retaliation from farmers and gardeners.

Though woodchucks prosper in our midst, they generally try to avoid humans. These large rodents fill an important niche in their ecosystem. For instance, their abandoned burrows provide homes for skunks, foxes, weasels, opossums, and rabbits.

Woodchucks are not large, but they're powerful tunnelers. Their husky bodies measure 16–20 inches long, excluding their dark, bushy tails; they weigh five to 15 pounds; and their coarse, brown fur is sprinkled with gray. Strong and active, woodchucks can swim, climb trees, and dig amazing burrow systems, some as deep as five feet and as long as 30 feet, with multiple tunnels and chambers.

Woodchucks have other unique skills. They are able to manipulate objects with their paws because they have thumb stumps with claws. Woodchucks communicate with one another using a variety of sounds, including a shrill alarm whistle (hence the moniker whistle-pig) to warn one another of approaching predators.

Woodchucks hibernate from October through February, so they eat heavily during the fall, sometimes doubling their weight. During hibernation, their body temperature drops to 40°F, and their hearts beat only four to ten times per minute. When they awaken, they immediately begin eating, and the mating season commences as soon as they have regained their strength. After a 30-day gestation period, a litter of four to six young is born and then nursed for six weeks. By late summer, young woodchucks are ready to live on their own.

Woodchucks are found primarily in the eastern United States, from Maine down to Georgia and Alabama, into the Midwest, and throughout most of Canada. In states west of the Great Plains, the woodchuck's relative, the yellow-bellied marmot, is common, but this animal avoids residential areas.

Ideal accommodations for woodchucks are found in woodlots and hedgerows, as well as near hayfields, pastures, and meadows. They prefer land with loose, pebbly soil—the easier to dig their large underground burrows. They feed on grass, berries, fruits, vegetables, and cereal crops. Woodchucks are especially fond of peas, beans, and corn, and they will climb trees in pursuit of apples and pawpaws.

Living with Woodchucks

Living peacefully with our wild neighbors can be a real joy. Learn how to share your land with woodchucks.

 

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