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The Woodchuck (Ground Hog)

The woodchuck (Marmota monax), also known as the ground hog, may be the only wild animal that has its own “day.” Every February 2 is “Ground Hog Day,” when—so the superstition goes—if a ground hog stepping out of its burrow sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.

Woodchuck Relatives
The name “woodchuck” is believed to come from the Cree Indian word “otcheck,” meaning forest-dwelling weasel. The woodchuck, however, is not a weasel. Instead, it is a type of rodent that biologists classify in the squirrel family (Sciuridae).

The woodchuck is the widest-ranging North American species in a group of chunky rodents called marmots. Other North American marmots include the yellowbelly marmot (rockchuck) of the western United States and the hoary marmot (whistler) of Alaska and western Canada. Other species of marmots live in Europe and Asia.

Where Woodchucks Live
Woodchucks live in eastern Alaska, most of Canada, and the eastern and midwestern United States. They can be found in a wide range of natural habitats, including open forests, forest edges, fields, and river ravines. They are also common in farmland, on suburban roadsides, and along utility right-of-ways (by telephone and electric poles).

The Woodchuck’s Body
The woodchuck has a strong, chunky body that is about 16 to 20 inches long, in addition to a bushy tail about 4 to 7 inches long. The animal usually weighs between 5 and 10 pounds. A woodchuck has a large, wide head with small eyes and ears. Its short legs make it waddle when it walks. The course fur of a woodchuck is brownish or grayish, with its belly paler than its back.

Like all rodents, the woodchuck has four long, curved incisors (front teeth), which grow throughout the animal’s life. Rodents have to frequently gnaw on hard objects (such as nuts and wood) to keep these teeth sharp and to prevent them from growing too long.

Woodchucks eat mainly plant food growing on or near the ground, such as grasses, dandelions, clovers, alfalfa, and seeds. They sometimes climb trees for apples and other fruits. They also eat insects.

Woodchucks are active mostly during the daytime, when they can be seen munching on plants, basking in the sun, and sitting upright on their hind legs surveying the landscape. Woodchucks normally live alone, but they sometimes get together in loose groups at foraging sites.

Throughout most of the year, a woodchuck lives in a large system of burrows that it has dug in the ground. This burrow system, including several tunnels and chambers, is typically 4 to 5 feet deep and 25 to 30 feet long. The system has a number of entrances, with one main entrance that is marked by a hole about six inches wide.

A woodchuck keeps its burrow system clean, frequently depositing wastes in a pile of dirt outside the main entrance. The woodchuck defends the area around its burrow system against other animals by acting out a series of threats—jumping, arching its back, flicking its tail, and chattering its teeth. It also makes warning sounds—most notably a short, sharp, piercing call.

Other species, including foxes, rabbits, and opossums, sometimes take over abandoned woodchuck burrows.

During autumn, a woodchuck consumes large amounts of food to build up extra fat in its body. The woodchuck uses this fat to survive during winter, when it hibernates in a special burrow that is deeper than its normal burrow system. This winter burrow has only one opening, which the woodchuck seals with dirt after entering.

The woodchuck typically sleeps in its winter burrow from October to February. Woodchucks are true hibernators, meaning that their body temperature and heart rate plummet during their winter inactivity. When a woodchuck goes into hibernation, its body temperature drops from about 98° Fahrenheit to 38° Fahrenheit, and its heart rate slows from about 80 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute.

A woodchuck occasionally wakes up during winter to briefly nibble on food and deposit body waste inside its burrow. The animal then returns to its deep sleep.

Woodchucks usually mate in March or April. Before mating with females, the males in an area may get into fights with each other, using their sharp teeth for weapons. The male that gains dominance in these battles wins the privilege of mating with one or more females living in the same area.

About four weeks after mating, a female woodchuck typically gives birth to four to six pups in an underground den. The pups are tiny, toothless, blind, and naked. But their bodies develop rapidly. Within a month, the pups are out foraging for food with their mother and playing with one another. When they are only two to three months old, the young woodchucks may begin moving out on their own.

Woodchucks in captivity have been known to live as long as 10 years. In the wild, however, woodchucks rarely live longer than four or five years.

Woodchucks have a lot of enemies in nature. Wolves, coyotes, bobcats, badgers, and hawks are some of the wild predators that prey on woodchucks. Woodchucks are also killed by human hunters and trappers and by automobiles.

Ground Hog Day
The legend behind Ground Hog Day was brought to America by settlers from Europe. According to the legend, if a ground hog emerging from hibernation sees its shadow (in other words, if the day is sunny), the animal somehow figures out that spring is six weeks away. So it scampers back into its burrow to go back to sleep. On the other hand, if the ground hog does not see its shadow (that is, if the day is cloudy), the animal determines that spring is right around the corner. So it stays out of its burrow, and all is well.

Although these ideas are a myth, there is a small kernel of truth behind them. Since ancient times, people have observed nature for signs of the changing seasons. The reappearance of certain animals, such as woodchucks, in late winter is a sure sign that warmer weather will arrive fairly soon.

Important Members of Ecosystem
Many farmers, ranchers, and home owners dislike woodchucks because their borrow systems can cause damage. The burrows might undermine the foundations of buildings, and livestock could become injured by accidentally stepping into burrow holes. For these reasons, woodchucks are commonly hunted and trapped.

Woodchucks, however, are also extremely important members of the ecosystem. They serve as food for many predator species. Their burrows serve as shelter for a variety of other animals. And their digging and foraging activities help shape the composition of soil and plant life. Thus, we are lucky that woodchucks remain a common site in North America.

Article Writteb By: Alfred J. Smuskiewicz


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