Often considered a nuisance and a pest, Groundhogs, woodchucks, or marmots as they are called are found predominately throughout Northern America, where they have gained notoriety for predicting when winter will end.
In fact, these little critters have even had a day named after them. But contrary to popular belief that groundhogs are cuddly little creatures, the opposite holds true. As cute as they are, they certainly won’t put up with you cuddling them.
In fact, these intelligent and often solitary rodents are more at ease in their own company and, as such, don’t make good pets due to their demanding needs.
In this article, we look at the groundhog as a species and provide pointers on how to evict one from your property humanely should the need arise.
Groundhogs Are Also Called…
For such a little critter, this rodent goes by many names.
Such as the more common woodchuck and whistle pig due to the fact, it’s chubby and emits a high-pitched whistle as a warning.
But they are also known as a land beaver, ground pig, wood-shock, thick wood badger, monax, weenusk, red monk, moonack, Canada marmot, and among French Canadians as siffleux. Okay, that’s too many names!
Interestingly enough, the origin of the word woodchuck, which incidentally has nothing to do with wood or chucking, is derived from the Native American Algonquian name ‘wuchak,’ which means digger.
Groundhogs are rodents of the family Sciuridae, including other species such as squirrels, prairie dogs, and chipmunks.
Their genus is Marmota (large land squirrels), and their species is Marmota monax.
Types of Groundhogs
Although there are six species of marmot found in North America, there is only one type of groundhog with its distribution through much of the Eastern part of the US, across Canada, and into Alaska. The six species are as follows:
- Alaskan Marmot
- Vancouver Island marmot
- Yellow-bellied marmot
- Hoary marmot
- Olympic marmot and, of course
- The groundhog
This stout-bodied large rodent with a short bushy tail is roughly the size of a large cat. It has four incisor teeth that grow almost 1⁄16 inches a week, but constant usage wears them down.
While the fur of the groundhog ranges from various shades of yellowish brown on its upper parts to a darker color on its feet, it has an underside that is buff in color.
Adult groundhogs can measure anything from 16 to 26 inches in full body length, including the tail at three to seven inches.
Adult males, on average, are slighter, larger, and heavier than their female counterparts.
In fact, groundhogs are considerably heavier during autumn when they engage in constant eating to accumulate fat reserves before hibernation.
Groundhogs are well equipped for burrowing and digging with four powerful short legs.
Unlike other members of the squirrel family, the groundhog’s tail is short in comparison at about one-fourth of its body length.
These little critters have long sharp claws, which they use for digging burrows, climbing trees, and self-defense.
Did you know groundhogs can remove an average of 374 pounds of soil and rock to build a burrow?
Here are some more interesting facts about this little critter.
Reuse of Vacant Dens
The elaborate underground burrows built by groundhogs are often used as residences for other animals, such as river otters, chipmunks, foxes, and weasels.
And interestingly enough, sometimes, the other animals even occupy portions of the burrow while the groundhog is hibernating.
A Stinky Critter
Woodchucks have more to their self-defense arsenal than just claws and teeth, for they usually emit a musky odor from their anal glands when they feel threatened.
The Groundhogs Incisors Can Be Fatal
During the warm months, groundhog incisors continue to grow. And if properly aligned, the lower and upper incisors will grind away with every bite the animal takes, keeping them short.
However, when not aligned, the incisors may miss one another until they resemble the tusks of a wild boar. If they are too long, the upper incisors could even impale the lower jaw, with often fatal results for the woodchuck.
Woodchucks Don’t Eat Much Wood.
Contrary to popular belief and the well-known rhyme asking how much wood a woodchuck would eat, the answer is not much.
Only when the groundhog emerges from hibernation it may snack on tree bark before vegetation in the area has grown for it to eat.
Despite being solitary creatures, groundhogs are extremely intelligent rodents who understand social behavior and even form a kinship with their young.
In fact, they also have a very keen sense of smell, sight, and hearing and the ability to understand and communicate threats through whistling.
And while these mammals are renowned for their digging prowess, they are also good swimmers and can climb trees.
Both female and male groundhogs tend to occupy the same territories year after year, typically up to just over two acres and largely determined by food availability.
Generally, for the most part, woodchucks have very little overlap between home ranges, although a male’s territory will coincide with up to three mature female territories.
And interestingly enough, a groundhog will typically not stray further than 100 to 200 feet from its burrow during the daytime.
Where Do Groundhogs Live
Groundhogs typically prefer the edges of woodland and open country for their burrows, which they rarely stray far from.
Generally speaking, most woodchucks construct both a winter and summer den. The winter burrow for hibernating is in more woody areas, such as hedgerows and small woodlots. While in contrast, their summer den in the warmer months can be found in fields and pastures.
Woodchucks are typically herbivores and eat grasses, berries, crops, and other vegetation.
In early spring, coltsfoot and dandelion are important groundhog food sources, along with all varieties of clover and alfalfa, amongst others.
Although it doesn’t often occur, a groundhog’s food habits can even stretch to eating small animals and insects such as butterflies, grasshoppers, and snails, and occasionally they will climb trees to eat young birds.
Interestingly, an adult groundhog can eat more than a pound of vegetation daily and are most active when they feed in the morning and late afternoon.
In summer and early fall, the woodchuck starts feeding heavily to accumulate huge fat reserves, which it will use to sustain itself during hibernation.
Do Groundhogs Mate for Life
Both male and female groundhogs usually breed in their second year.
Male groundhogs typically wake up early from hibernation. In fact, it can be as early as February when the male leaves their burrows in search of hibernating females.
The male will then go back to sleep for another month until breeding season, which starts in early March and extends until late April.
As such male groundhogs have more than one female mate partner at a time. But a mated pair remains in the same den throughout the 32-day gestation period, with the male leaving the den just before the young approaches.
Typically, females give birth to one litter a year of four to six newborns that stay with their mother for the first three months.
Young groundhogs are then introduced to the wild by their mother, usually in May and early June, once they can see and their fur has grown. And by the end of August, the family unit disperses to burrow on their own.
How Long Do Groundhogs Live
It has been reported that given the right conditions, groundhogs can live up to 14 years in captivity, while in the wild, the average is two to three years, with some even living up to six years.
Despite their rotund and heavy appearance, groundhogs are actually accomplished swimmers and occasionally climb trees when wanting to scope out their surroundings, looking for food or escaping predators.
It has been said that a woodchuck can hold its breath for up to five minutes underwater when looking for food or avoiding predators.
But it is their burrows they prefer to retreat to when threatened or under attack.
Groundhogs are excellent burrowers; they use their burrows for sleeping, hibernating, and bringing up their young.
In fact, woodchuck summer burrows are usually constructed with two to five multiple entrances, which provide the animal with a means of escape should it be attacked by predators. While their winter dens only have one main entrance, which the woodchuck blocks off with soil before hibernation.
Their underground burrows can be anything from 50 to 100 feet in length and up to six feet below the surface.
And interestingly, each burrow system can be extensive, with an area for excreting waste, a nesting (nursery) area, and a hibernation area.
The hibernation and nursery areas are lined with dried grasses and dead leaves, which these rodents keep tidy by changing out the nesting material occasionally.
Additionally, during the winter months, other animals, such as raccoons, opossums, skunks, and foxes, are also known to use a woodchuck’s burrow.
Groundhogs are one of the few animal species that enter into winter hibernation. In fact, as mentioned previously, this rodent will often build a separate winter burrow in which to do this.
In most areas, woodchucks will hibernate between October to March or even April, but in more temperate regions, they may hibernate for as little as three months.
Preparation for hibernation starts with feeding heavily during summer and fall to ensure they are at their maximum weight before entering hibernation.
Upon entering hibernation, a groundhog’s body temperature drops to as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit, its heart rate falls to four to ten beats a minute, and its breathing rate slows to one breath every six minutes.
During this time, a groundhog will lose nearly half their body weight until they emerge from hibernation, where the remaining body fat is used to live on until the warmer spring weather.
When outside their burrows, it’s not unusual to see these little critters standing motionless and erect on their hind feet, watching out for danger.
And when alarmed, a woodchuck will use a high-pitched whistle to alert the rest of the colony to seek refuge in their burrows.
Interestingly, other sounds these rodents make include squealing (when caught by a predator, injured, or fighting), low barks, and a sound produced by grinding their teeth.
Should their burrow be invaded by a predator without a way to escape, the groundhog will defend itself tenaciously with its razor-sharp front claws and two large incisors.
Predators and Threats
Just like any other animal species, groundhogs are vulnerable to attack by predators such as badgers, coyotes, bobcats, and foxes, mainly in eastern North America.
In fact, most of these predators are stealth stalkers and often use the element of surprise to catch the woodchuck before it can escape into its burrow.
While in Canada, predators such as the coyote and gray wolf are known to hunt groundhogs occasionally. But it’s not just ground predators that prey on adult groundhogs.
Birds of prey, such as the Golden eagle and great horned owls, have also been reported to hunt these animals. At the same time, young groundhogs, due to their size, are at risk from predators such as snakes, minks, and hawks.
But it’s not just predators that pose a risk to the groundhog, for some may become infected with bacteria transmitted by ticks or even carry rabies.
In addition, these animals are also killed regularly for sport, fur, or food by humans and culled in attempts to stop them from destroying agricultural crops and grassland.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) Red List of Threatened Species, the groundhog is classified as of least concern and not at risk.
The infamous Groundhog Day, which has entrenched itself in American folklore and tradition, is a well-known annual event that takes place in Gobbler’s Knob, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
With its roots in the ancient Christian tradition, clergy members would bless and distribute candles to those in need, with the number of candles representing how long winter would be.
The Germans expanded on this concept and selected an animal, a hedgehog. And once German settlers came to America and settled in Pennsylvania, they continued this tradition and switched to a groundhog, of which there was an abundance in the region.
On February 2, 1887, the first groundhog day took place featuring a groundhog with the name Punxsutawney Philwhich was latergiven to the groundhog in 1961.
According to tradition, if it sees its shadow when it comes out of its hole and then runs back into its burrow, it means six more weeks of winter. Conversely, if there is no shadow, it means spring is coming early.
Humanely Evicting a Groundhog from Your Residence or Property
Due to animal deforestation activities, the groundhog has been forced to build their burrows closer to human habitats, where they are considered pests due to their digging activities which can threaten building foundations and damage surface vegetation.
In addition, they are also big eaters and, during summer, decimate gardens and can quickly overtake and destroy farming crops.
But there are many ways of evicting a groundhog humanely from a property without resorting to toxic chemicals.
Groundhogs hate the smell of castor oil, so pour some around their burrow holes. But only apply when they are not there; otherwise, they will remain burrowed.
Sprinkle Epsom salts near or around the burrow exits and entrances.
Just like castor oil, woodchucks detest the smell of garlic, lavender, and cayenne pepper. So put these around their burrow holes and place these smells near your garden vegetables and plants.
Human Hair clippings
Woodchucks dislike the scent of humans, so sprinkle hair clippings in areas where the groundhog frequents.
Soiled Cat Litter
Use soiled cat litter, which smells like a predator around one of the den holes, not the others. By leaving one hole scent-free, the groundhog can escape without staying burrowed.
And should all else fail, the next best option is to use a live trap and catch the little critter. Once caught, it can be released back into the wild, miles away from your yard and other populated areas.
Relationship with Humans
Due to their habit of burrowing and eating commonly grown vegetables and plants, woodchucks are generally considered a serious nuisance by farmers and homeowners alike.
But more worrying is the danger and health concern they pose to humans and pet animals.
Public Health Concerns
In the US, groundhogs are the animals most reported as rabid. In fact, groundhogs are known carriers of the rabies virus, and although rare, they may attack and bite if they feel threatened or if their offspring is in danger.
Additionally, they also carry tularemia, transmitted to them by invertebrates such as ticks. Humans who come into contact with the fecal matter of an infected groundhog may contract the disease.
Signs of infection include a skin ulcer at the site where the bacteria entered the body, swollen lymph glands, chest pain, cough, and difficulty breathing.
Yet strangely enough, despite all the negativity surrounding these little critters, the groundhog does perform a valuable service. When digging, groundhogs help with soil aeration and deliver organic matter deeper, which provides excellent nutrients.
Also, their burrowing has revealed at least two archeological sites, and they have bought many objects to the surface.
And in addition to their ecological contributions, the woodchuck, as one of the animals that naturally contract hepatitis B, has also indirectly assisted researchers in synthesizing vaccines and medicines to combat the disease.
But if you have a burrow in your yard and the animal poses a problem, opt to humanely evict the groundhog first without killing it!