When I mention woodchucks in a gathering of acquaintances, the reaction ranges from hostility to adoration. This year, as in past summers, my wife has assigned to me the job of ridding our vegetable garden and barn foundation of woodchucks. She seems to blame me for their presence on our property.
The only fault I find with woodchucks is their burrows spread piles of fresh dirt at the edges of our yard and inside our barn just where our lawn mower is stored. Since her distaste for woodchucks has been transferred to me, I set out to discover if woodchucks had any endearing qualities.
Last summer, attempts to live trap woodchucks produced two raccoons, but only one small woodchuck. This year my dog has helped by catching two small woodchucks inside the boundaries of his electric fence. Farmers tell me hunting woodchucks is effective.
A few blades of grass stick out of this woodchuck’s mouth as it looks around for predators on Fairmount Avenue in Lakewood in late June this year.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
Since the woodchuck burrows underground to live in a den, is chubby with short legs, and runs with a waddle like a pig, a more common and appropriate name is groundhog. When excited or disturbed, it emits a short, clear whistle which I heard last week when my dog dug at a burrow, hence the nickname "whistle pig."
The woodchuck grows to 1-2 feet in length and weighs 6-10 pounds. Sight and hearing are keen. The eyes and nose are on top of a flat head enabling it to scan for predators from its burrow barely sticking its head out. The front feet are adapted for digging while the back feet push dirt out the burrow entrance. Dens at the end of a 10-foot-long-burrow can be 6 feet deep. Two upper and two lower front teeth called "incisors" can gnaw through roots several inches thick while creating a burrow.
Since the woodchuck is a rodent, the front incisor teeth keep growing except during hibernation. When a woodchuck bites a blade of grass or other plant material, the upper incisors slide over the lower incisors necessarily grinding the ends down.
Clover, alfalfa, grasses, saplings, berries, bean and pea sprouts, carrots, cabbage and potatoes are favorite food sources, just what gardeners and farmers like to grow. Last week, parked in my car on Fairmount Avenue in Lakewood, at a distance of only 40 feet, I observed a woodchuck feed on grass ignoring white clover all around.
Woodchucks are solitary except when breeding. A male will search for a female in her den. If two males encounter the same female, a bloody fight ensues. The winner can enter the den only when the female is ready to mate. Mating occurs in March. After a gestation period of 28-30 days, two to four blind, naked babies are born. The father is not permitted to care for the young.
The mother conducts predator drills to teach her young how to respond to danger from predators such as foxes, coyotes, hawks and dogs. By fall, the young are sent out to make their own burrows. A den will have more than one entrance and exit to allow for escape.
Woodchucks sleep late, appearing in my yard after 10 a.m., bask in the sun and stuff their mouths with food, all understandable human behavior.
Woodchuck hibernation is a unique phenomenon shared by many mammals allowing them to survive a long freezing winter when food is scarce. During hibernation breathing slows from six to one breath per minute. Temperature drops from 96 to 47 degrees F and heart rate slows from 150 to 15 per minute.
During the 1600s, Europeans celebrated Feb. 2 as the day the hedgehog emerged from its burrow to forecast the end of winter. This custom was brought to America, land of the woodchuck, by German settlers who called it "Groundhog Day."
Have I grown any fonder of woodchucks by this study? I think a little bit.
While woodchucks are conspicuous, they are wary; they even climb trees and swim to retrieve food; their digging brings soil to the surface. If a woodchuck lives across the street, I have no objection, but sharing my garden and barn is still off limits.