Woodchuck (Groundhog)

Marmota monax
Family

Sciuridae (squirrels) in the order Rodentia

Description

The woodchuck, or groundhog, is a common Missouri rodent with short, powerful legs and a medium-long, bushy, and somewhat flattened tail. The long, coarse fur of the back is a grizzled grayish brown with a yellowish or reddish cast. Woodchucks weigh least in spring when they are just out of hibernation and most in fall prior to hibernation. When alarmed or suddenly disturbed, they can give a loud, shrill whistle.

Size

Total length: 16–27 inches; tail length: 4–7 inches; weight: 4–14 pounds.

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Image of woodchuck (groundhog) standing upright
Woodchuck (Groundhog)

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Woodchuck
Woodchuck

FG-0009_Groundhog.mp4

Video of groundhogs in the wild.

Woodchuck

Closeup of a woodchuck's head. you can see its rodent teeth and small round ears.
Woodchuck at Creve Coeur Lake
Habitat and conservation

Woodchucks dig burrows along borders between timbered areas and open land or along fencerows, heavily vegetated gullies, or streams. The main entrance is often by a tree stump or rock and is usually conspicuous because of a pile of freshly excavated earth. Side entrances are smaller and better hidden. Tunnels lead to an enlarged chamber 3–6 feet underground containing the nest. Where woodchucks are too plentiful, consult a competent person who is acquainted with state and federal laws.

Foods

The woodchuck is almost a complete vegetarian, eating leaves, flowers, and soft stems of various grasses, of field crops such as clover and alfalfa, and of many kinds of wild herbs. Certain garden crops like peas, beans, and corn are favorites. They occasionally climb trees to obtain apples and pawpaws.

image of Woodchuck Groundhog Distrbution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide, but rare in the Mississippi Lowlands, where the water table is so high that denning sites are limited.

Status

Common. One of the best-known wild mammals in Missouri, the woodchuck is a rodent in the squirrel family. The name “woodchuck” is possibly derived from an Algonquian Indian name for this species. Woodchucks are also sometimes called "whistle pigs" for their loud alarm whistles. The woodchuck is in the same genus (Marmota) as the yellow-bellied marmot and hoary marmot, which are well-known in western states.

Life cycle

Woodchucks hibernate in their burrows from late October to sometime in February. Breeding begins soon after they emerge. Pregnancy lasts 31–33 days, and the single, annual litter of 2–9 young arrives toward the end of March. At birth, the 4-inch young are naked, blind, and helpless; the eyes open after 4 weeks. They start going outside at 6–7 weeks old. By midsummer, the young weigh about 4 pounds and may dig temporary burrows before moving farther away to establish their own homes. The lifespan is usually only 2 or 3 years in the wild, but in captivity they have lived to age 14.

Human connections

Woodchuck fur was once used for fur coats. The flesh of young, lean animals is good food. Because they are one of the few large mammals that are active in daylight, many people enjoy seeing them.

Their burrowing makes them unwelcome in cemeteries and where earthen dams hold back lake water.

Today, February 2 is the well-known date for Groundhog Day, when groundhogs supposedly emerge from their dens and either "see their shadows" or not. If it's sunny on Groundhog Day, the groundhog supposedly sees his shadow and returns to his burrow to continue hibernation, knowing there will be six more weeks of winter. But if it's cloudy, then winter weather is over, and it's safe for people to begin plowing and planting. Historically, weather "signs" and omens were taken seriously because they determined the best timing for farming activities. Apparently, decades ago, it really didn't matter if anyone actually saw a groundhog on Groundhog Day — it was mainly about whether it was cloudy or sunny on this special date.

However, before people from other parts of the country started to influence Ozark culture, Groundhog Day in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas was widely believed to be February 14, the same as Valentine's Day. Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph explained that from about 1900 to 1940, the "correct" date for Groundhog Day was a truly contentious issue in the Ozarks, pitting longtime backcountry Ozarkers against "outsiders," "furriners," and "the younger generation," who were clearly rushing the season and getting it all wrong. By the early 1930s, having a sunny February 2 and a cloudy February 14 would mean that the oldtimers were taking off their coats and cultivating their gardens, while newcomers were settling in for another six weeks of winter.

Ecosystem connections

The woodchuck is important for providing homes for other animals: skunks, foxes, weasels, opossums,and rabbits all use woodchuck burrows for their dens.

Also, as they move tremendous quantities of subsoil as they dig, woodchucks aerate and mix the soil. This improves soil quality for plants and other beneficial organisms and helps the soil to absorb rain and other water.

Adult woodchucks often avoid predation by running into their burrows and, if necessary, by defending themselves fiercely with their powerful claws and teeth. Still, dogs, coyotes, and foxes may kill adult woodchucks.

As with most species, the young are the most vulnerable to predation, particularly to hawks and other raptors.

Signs & Tracks

Front track:

  • 2 inches long
  • 4 toes.

Hind track:

  • 2½ inches long
  • 5 toes.

Other notes:

  • The tracks are scarcely ever well defined.
  • The heel of the hind foot often does not touch the ground, causing hind tracks often to appear shorter than front tracks.
  • The claws often leave prints.
  • Walking, the hind track usually is positioned in front of front track.
  • Distinguish from raccoon track by 4 (not 5) fingers in front track.
  • Woodchucks rarely go very far from their den and associated brush piles or other cover.
  • Woodchucks dig burrows along borders between wooded and open areas or along fencerows, heavily vegetated gullies, or streams. The main entrance is often by a tree stump or rock and usually has a conspicuous pile of freshly excavated earth. Side entrances are smaller and better hidden.
  • In Missouri, woodchucks generally hibernate from late October into February, so you do not usually see their tracks in winter.
Illustration of a woodchuck track