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Groundhog or Woodchuck: Facts, Photos and Control

Groundhog, Marmota monax, with chucklings

Color: Gray to cinnamon to dark brown
Body Length: 16 - 25 inches
Tail Length: 6 inches
Communication: Sight, smell, and sound for conspecifics, ecretions from facial and anal glands for marking territory
Diet: Nuts, ferns, grasses and grains
Mating System: Monogamous
Lifespan: Less than 6 years

Each year, on February 2nd, we look towards a giant rodent to find out how much more winter we'll have to endure. This year, we probably know the answer: winter hasn't been very wintry. According to tradition, the Groundhog, Marmota monax, peeks out of its burrow today, and checks to see if it has a shadow. If sunny enough for a shadow, the groundhog will return to the comfort of its burrow, and winter will continue for an additional six weeks.

Groundhogs are also variously referred to as woodchucks, whistle-pigs, or land-beavers. The name whistle-pig comes from the fact that, when alarmed, a groundhog will emit a high-pitched whistle as a warning to the rest of his or her colony.

The name woodchuck has nothing to do with wood or chucking. The name is derived from the Algonquian name for the critters, wuchak. Baby groundhogs (woodchucks) are called 'chucklings'.

Home Sweet Home

Graphic of Groundhog anatomy Both male and female groundhogs tend to occupy the same territories year after year. For females, there is very little overlap between home ranges except for the late spring and early summer, as females try to expand their territories. During this time, their ranges may overlap by as much as ten percent. Males have non-overlapping territories as well, though any male territory coincides with one to three mature females' territories.

Family Values

In general, groundhog social groups consist of one adult male and two adult females, each with an offspring from the previous breeding season (usually female), and the current litter of infants. Interactions within a female's group are generally friendly. But interactions between female groups - even when those groups are shared by the same adult male - are rare and aggressive. Even though daddy woodchuck doesn't live at home, from the breeding season through the first month of the infants' lives, he visits each of his female groups every day.

Baby 'Chucklings'

The female groundhog prepares a birthing den and lines it with soft grasses to keep her and her new family comfortable. The burrow is also called a cette, and may be up to 80 feet long, but the birthing chamber is usually only about three times the mother's length, retaining warmth and helping her to keep her babies close. A mother groundhog may have up to 10 babies, but 3 to 6 is the most common litter size.

Baby Groundhogs Newborn baby woodchucks are pink, completely hairless, and only about the size of a matchbox car. Their ears are folded closed and their eyes don't even have lids to open yet. The only senses that are working in a newborn groundhog are touch and smell.

Infants stick around home for only about two to three months after being born in mid-April, and then they disperse and leave mom's burrow. However, a significant proportion - thirty five percent - of females stick around longer, leaving home just after their first birthdays, right before mom's new litter arrives. At about 44 days they are weaned, and can survive without mothers milk.

Family Life

Voles are semifossorial, and as such, construct many tunnels and surface runways with numerous burrow entrances. A single burrow system may contain several adults and young. Vole nests are globular structures of dry grass about 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Nest cavities are usually located on the surface of the ground or under old boards, discarded metal, logs, or other such cover. In winter, above-ground nests may be made in deep snow, but these are temporary and will be vacated when the snow melts.

Look Up!

Though they spend most of their time on or under the ground, groundhogs can also climb trees.

Diet

Groundhog, Marmota monax, ubrrow Groundhogs live in places with open fields and also plenty of green vegetation in the form of bushes and weeds. Some of the most essential components of a groundhog’s diet are nuts, foliage that comes from bushes, ferns, grass, flowers, fruits and grains. Some of the plants that groundhogs eat most are: clovers, asters, plantains, sorrel, dandelion and chicken weed. They cherish juicy plants since they can rarely drink water directly from a water source.

Although groundhogs are considered predominantly herbivores, there are some factors that have led animal scientists to conclude that groundhogs are indeed not fully herbivorous. For example, it is not an uncommon occurrence to find groundhogs enjoying a meal of eggs, snails, juvenile birds and bugs. They can even feed on larger insects such a grasshoppers and June bugs. However, it should be noted that their largest source of their food is still plants and they may even go for a long time without feeding on anything other than greens.

The feeding style of groundhogs is just as pronounced as any other herbivorous. They typically stick to a feeding timetable which is a feeding period of about two hours at a time. They consume a large percentage of their meal in the mornings and they may eat another meal in the late evenings for around the same two hours as the mornings. However, they also eat during the night,

The Bad: Groundhog Damage

Groundhogs can be a real problem in residential properties where they are responsible for more than one type of damage. All of the damage that Groundhogs do is “big” because they are large animals (up to 12 pounds and 27 inches long).

Groundhog Feeding Damage. It’s difficult to grow a vegetable garden with a Groundhog residing nearby. Groundhogs are primarily vegetarians and have been known to happily eat 46 different types of plants. Their favorites are beans, peas, carrot greens, tomatoes, and various grasses and clover. Groundhogs also have a thing for fruit and will climb trees to reach fruit above. They also feed on leaves of certain trees like mulberry.

Groundhog Gnawing Damage. Groundhogs are in the squirrel family and also must gnaw constantly to keep their incisor teeth from growing. In spring, especially, they may gnaw on the stems and trunks of trees and sometimes strip the bark. They will also claw and dig at the base of newly planted fruit trees. Like squirrels, Groundhogs will gnaw randomly on decks, siding, and outdoor furniture.

Groundhog Burrowing Damage. Groundhogs normally dig their den burrows in brushy clumps along steep edges of fields or pastures. But they will also burrow under sheds, porches, decks, or walkways, and will dig burrows under woodpiles or brush piles. Their burrows can be huge (up to 50 feet long) with many side passages and multiple entrances. Since the burrows can be up to 5 feet deep, they can damage and dry out the roots of trees and can undermine building foundations. Collapsing burrow systems are a hazard for horses, people, and lawn tractors.

How to Get Rid of Groundhogs

Here are several ways to control groundhogs -- here are some common suggestions.

1. Bait the groundhog into a trap, catch it, and then release it in a wooded area five miles away from your home.

2. Create vibrations in the ground to scare them away.

3. Smoke them out of their tunnel.

4. Pour ammonia down their tunnel.

5. Deter with garlic and pepper.

6. Get a dog or cat (or sprinkle their urine and fur around the yard).

7. Scatter human hair around the yard.

8. Sprinkle talcum powder in he garden.

9. Use fencing and chicken wire as prevention.

Do Groundhogs Make Good Pets?

Groundhogs do not make good pets, as they obviously dig and chew through almost anything in their path. Odds are, they will find a way out of a cage and will escape eventually. It is especially important that you do not try to keep baby groundhogs, even if you know they are orphaned. It is best to call your local animal control or an animal shelter to ask if they can take them in and rehabilitate them. Baby groundhogs are very sensitive, and can die if not given the proper attention. Despite being cute, groundhogs do not make good pets.

Further Information

The Life Cycle of Plants: Fertilization
All About Aphids & Their Control
Pollination and Fertilization