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9 Things You Didn’t Know About Groundhogs

Picture of a groundhog, or woodchuck, family
A family of groundhogs—otherwise known as woodchucks. Photograph by W. Perry Conway, Corbis

This Sunday is Groundhog Day, which means that eyes that aren’t glued to the Super Bowl will be trained on Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and the verdict of its most famous resident: occasional meteorologist and full-time groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.

Each year groundhogs enjoy 15 minutes of fame before most people proceed to forget about them completely. So in honor of Groundhog Day, we dug up some little-known facts about these annual celebrities.

 1. They’re related to squirrels.

Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are a type of rodent known as a marmot, and marmots are closely related to squirrels. “They are giant ground squirrels is what they are,” says Richard Thorington, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

What’s more, groundhogs have an extensive range and can be found all over North America.

“[Groundhogs are] the most widely distributed marmot of all of them, [with a range stretching] as far south as northern Alabama to northern Canada—and some are even found in Alaska,” adds Stam Zervanos, retired professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University in Reading, who’s conducted extensive research on groundhogs.

 2. “Woodchuck” has nothing to do with wood.

Groundhogs have many colorful names, including whistle-pig for their tendency to emit short, high-pitched whistles. They’re also known as land beavers, but their most famous nickname is woodchuck.

Surprisingly, the name woodchuck doesn’t have anything to do with wood. It’s thought to be a corruption of the Native American words wejack, woodshaw, or woodchoock. It may have its roots in the Algonquian (or perhaps Narragansett) name for the animal: wuchak.

Other sources claim it’s a bastardization of the Cree word otchek for “fisher” or the Ojibwe ojiig, also for “fisher” or “marten,” which Europeans appropriated and misapplied to the groundhog.

So how much wood could a woodchuck chuck? None, apparently.

3. They build impressive homes.

A groundhog’s burrow can be anywhere from 8 to 66 feet (2 to 20 meters) long, with multiple exits and a number of chambers.

There can be several levels to their burrows, says Zervanos. “They have a burrow for hibernating, and then they have another section of the burrow that’s more like their summer home where they can come out more easily.”

Their burrows even have separate rooms for defecation—otherwise known as bathrooms.

In some cases, groundhogs have more than one residence and move from one burrow to another.

4. Farmers consider them pests.

Those impressive tunneling skills make for great burrows, but they can also mean big headaches for those in the agricultural profession.

They dig fairly extensive burrows, and tractors can break an axle [driving over them],” says Zervanos.

And since the animals are herbivores—and prefer tender, young greens—they can make nuisances of themselves by raiding crops.

Soybeans, corn, family gardens, it’s all a banquet in the eyes of a groundhog. But some can be more discerning.

“They’re selective,” says the Smithsonian’s Thorington. “They’ll go for your best cabbages and best foods that you have out there.”

5. They’re loners.

Unlike some of their cousins, such as prairie dogs, groundhogs are basically loners, seeking out their own kind only to mate. (See “Video: Why Do Prairie Dogs Do ‘The Wave’?”)

“They’re pretty solitary for most of the year, so the male has no clue where the female is most of the year except when they’re ready to mate,” says Penn State’s Zervanos.

Even their maternal duty to their young is short and sweet.

“The mother nurses the young, and then shortly after they’re weaned, they tend to go off on their own. [They're] about as asocial as you can get,” says Thorington.

6. When they sleep, they really sleep.

Groundhogs are known as “true hibernators,” going into a dormant state—in which their body temperature and heart rate fall dramatically—from late fall until late winter or early spring.

“True hibernators are the ones that can reduce their body temp below 20 degrees Celsius,” says Zervanos. ”Bears for example, when they hibernate, they only drop their body temp to 30 degrees from 37 degrees Celsius.

“Any of the true hibernators can [also] reduce their heart rate down to about five beats a minute, and their body temperature can go as low as five degrees Celsius,” he adds.

But Zervanos, who’s studied groundhog hibernation extensively, points out that hibernation isn’t as cut and dried a process as people think. While groundhogs go into deep hibernation mode, there’s plenty of tossing and turning, so to speak.

“Hibernation is not a deep sleep that continues for the entire winter,” explains Zervanos. Instead, groundhogs go through bouts of “torpor,” when their body temperature drops to about five degrees Celsius, he says. They’ll do this for about a week, then wake up for three or four days, then go back into torpor.

“They do this about 12 to 20 times in the hibernation season,” says Zervanos.

7. They wake up early for love.

Groundhogs hibernate from late fall for roughly three months, then wake up when it’s still quite cold.

But it turns out they have a very good reason to drag themselves out of bed. There’s evidence that male groundhogs wake up early to get a head start on reproduction.

“The males come out and start to prepare for the mating season,” says Zervanos, which involves surveying their turf and making house-calls to female burrows as early as February.

“Typically, there’s a male that has a territory that includes several female burrows. And there’s some competition for that territory,” he explains. “They try to defend that territory, and they go from burrow to burrow to find out if that female is still there.”

Having determined where his potential mates are, the male then returns to his burrow to sleep for another month or so until early March when it’s time to mate.

8. They’re filling in for hedgehogs.             

The reported origins of Groundhog Day are various, but the concept is thought to be linked to the Germanic tradition of Candlemas Day. In Europe, however, the animal used was generally a hedgehog or a badger. How it wound up being the groundhog’s responsibility in the United States may have been a bit of a fluke.

“When the Europeans came over here, they didn’t have any hedgehogs or badgers to lay the blame on, so I think the groundhog got it by being here and being a good size,” speculates the Smithsonian’s Thorington. “He became the one to prophesize whether winter would come or not.”

9. They have great timing.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that we entrust predictions for the duration of winter to the humble groundhogs. After all, they display an uncanny knack for good timing.

Groundhogs have to know just when to emerge from hibernation to mate so that their offspring will have the best chance of survival.

“Most matings happen in a ten-day period in early March,” says Zervanos. “If [the offspring] are born too late, they can’t get enough weight for winter, and if they’re born too early, the female doesn’t have enough food to feed them.”

In other words, the window of opportunity is very small and the wily woodchuck has to get it just right.

If their instincts are that good, I’ll take the groundhog’s shadow over your average weatherman any day of the year.

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.

Comments

  1. mike irvin
    kansas city Missouri
    August 19, 10:20 pm

    How do i get rid of them? Im afraid they are gonna make a thanksgiving out of my big lush herb and veggie garden. Im real pissed with this fat tjings. Can i eat them????

  2. christine from ky. we have groundhogs i dont know how many,i
    August 14, 7:58 pm

    i am afried they will hurt my small dogs.

  3. K. sproat
    Evansville, IN
    July 31, 12:24 pm

    I have them under myshed and they riddle my garden…suggestions on getting rid of them for good!

  4. Reba
    Arkansas
    July 23, 6:07 pm

    As I write this in July 2014 I am watching a groundhog who’s got a den under the neighbors shed. He or she sunbathes and eats outside my kitchen window!!

  5. Walter
    United States
    July 15, 8:51 pm

    I hate groundhogs. They have dug a burroughs under my front door step and under my cement drive way. I had pest control set two traps yesterday and I noticed one was killed today. We will leave the traps for 10 days to see how many we kill. Once they are all killed, I will have to do some major work in my yard to patch up the burroughs.

  6. georgie
    Jersey city
    July 8, 9:38 am

    Friend had groundog family in veggie garden.every year. Tried “marigolds”, “cayenne pepper” on veggie, “fox, coyote urine” to chase them off….finally this year set havaheart traps with “canteloupe” caught all! They love canteloupe. Then on a sunny day, poured sudsy/cloudy ammonia in hole. Now they don’t no if it was their borrow..seems their borrow was outside the garden & this was the entrance hole…then rolled a huge rock over the hole.so far so good! Best to start lookin early for the burrow, be4 babies r born.

  7. Janet
    Ridgeley WV
    July 3, 6:13 pm

    There is a family of groundhogs in my neighborhood. One of them has taken up residence in my yard. My daughter planted a pot of pineapple sage and he loves it. He has eaten most of its leaves. I am worried about him running into my 12 yr old Tabby!!

  8. Jacqui
    Flint, Michigan
    June 23, 12:12 am

    I have just discovered the little rodents in my fenced in backyard. We moved here last June and never knew they even existed…especially in this city. I also planted a few vegetables in pots and my husband said that they will eat my plants. I as raised in the country and we never saw them out there…this is ne to me and I don’t care how cute they are they MUST GO!!!! Can I set out bubblegum to get rid of them? It works for moles and a few squirrels…Tell me what I can do….I don’t want to hurt them…..BUT I WILL>>>>>>>>>

  9. Dereck
    Miramichi N.B
    June 6, 6:02 pm

    I have a groundhog named guber but it’s a girl she’s been here for 3 years has pups ever year I call her like a dog she eats out of my hand and sits right beside me to eat . I give her carrots. problem is she went in to have her pups about a month ago and I haven’t seen her since now 1 pup with fur is out but no sing of her do you think she died moved on or what ? worried

  10. jamie
    new york
    June 4, 9:35 am

    Can we eat them?

  11. kim hanson
    unadilla,ny
    June 3, 1:39 pm

    I have a tenant saying that she has a woodchuck under her trailer.It’s eating his way the floor board and scratching his way to the living room floor. We have not heard the scrathing or seen the little rodent. Is it possible for a woodchuck to do this????? . The tenant is driving me crazy!!!!!!. I have woodchuck smoke bombs which I have use before. Thank you for your time in this matter kim

  12. kathy welty
    United States
    June 3, 11:46 am

    Thank you so much for this article. Every yer we see a mama and babies, and watch them grow. Recently a neighbors dog killed one of the babies, we have not seen any of them since. Does the mama ever move to another den to protect her young ?

  13. Linda B
    Western NY State
    May 21, 2:04 pm

    Well, guess I’ll begin by saying I’m an animal lover through & through. I’ve rehabbed baby birds, foxes & chipmunks and, all our pets are rescues.
    That said,
    If I could find a way to rid my back hillside from all ground hogs I would do it no matter what it took. They have built a borough 70 ft long w/ as many as 12 holes on the hillside just behind my garden.

    Each year they raid my garden to no end.
    I’ve tried buried fences surrounded by patio bricks, reinforced by piled rocks, let the thistles grow thick around it, poured poisons down their Extensive borough system, dropped big rocks down the holes, cut the grass low around the holes…planted squash plants and other veggies outside the garden just for them…Nothing works to keep them away. Because of the location being ‘down the hill, it’s hard to get a shot at them. My neighbor sat for 3 hrs one time & never saw one. We tried a have a heart trap & caught one but he broke it & got out :-( About to get a bulldozer in here….Any suggestions?

  14. Kevin
    Parlin, New Jersey
    May 2, 7:29 am

    Have a Woodchuck that traverses our back yard almost daily driving our 1 y/o black lab absolutely nuts. I fear that it may bite our lab and pass on a disease. They can be quite a nuisance and destructive; Therfore, I will be trapping it soon and relocating it to a rural park nearby. Sounds like apples will make a good bait for the trap. Thanks for the great info Stephan. Hopefully our unwelcome resident Woodchuck when relocated will find a suitable mate before the foxes and/or coyotes find him/her.

  15. mary utley
    bowling green ky
    April 24, 4:42 pm

    there is a ground hog in the fence row’ wondering if it would attack our cat?

  16. Pat
    Northern Delaware
    April 12, 7:26 pm

    One showed up in the fenced in backyard last week. Saw it again today. Hubby said it was groundhog so I looked it up. Are they agressive? We have a 14 yr old dachshund whose health and eyesight are waning. Would a groundhog attack her? How do we get rid of it?

  17. chuck in nc
    North Carolina
    April 10, 10:16 am

    Great article, but you need to add that they also climb trees.

  18. Ruben Edmund
    Parem State, Micronesia
    March 28, 12:51 pm

    Thanks for the nice article, I never heard about groundhogs til I read your article.I ve known some of rodent type or marmot, like prarie dogs, mongoose,skunks,rats and the other cousins.Thanks once again, for educating me the essential instincts they naturally have.

  19. Kathy
    New jersey
    March 5, 1:45 pm

    I love your article. I’m waiting for “my” groundhog to show his face soon. He made his den by my fence near the bird and squirrel feeders I have. He loves to munch on the sunflowers and nuts. I hope he made it through this cold, snowy and difficult winter!

  20. Jose
    Ohio
    February 17, 8:06 pm

    I can’t wait to start shooting them in the spring. To save crops and just for the sniper practice got about 15 last year. Such fun!!

  21. rph
    pa
    February 8, 9:13 am

    great article….thanks

  22. Leslie
    Maryland
    February 4, 4:39 pm

    I spent all of 2013 watching ‘our’ groundhogs. He came out on Feb 3 and stayed out. Pux ‘Phil’ was wrong last year. And yes, they do climb trees -I never knew that till last year. My husband almost got hit by one that fell out of the tree. ‘Flying Groundhog’ he said ‘almost got me’. They love apples. We watched ‘Dad’ pick one from the tree and throw it to the ground. ‘Jr.’ took it and started eating. ‘Dad’ came down and they had a scuffle – ‘Dad’ won. They were very entertaining all year. They were out until December. I am watching for them to come out for 2014. And they like flowers too – they were in my flower bed a few times. I nicknamed one of them ‘pudgy’. By August he deserved the name. (I don’t know who was male/female/old or young. We just named them.) Enjoyed the article. Thanks.

  23. Greg Laden
    United States
    February 3, 7:11 pm

    Great stuff but one quibble: They are not related to squirrels. They ARE squirrels. They are, simply, a kind of squirrel like the Fox, Red, Grey, etc. Just a little funny looking for a squirrel.

  24. Jim Parks
    Kentucky
    February 3, 5:57 pm

    As to Point # 4, they are pests. I raise a vegetable garden, and I have to be on constant watch for them. And they do eat very selectively: only the youngest, tenderest, tastiest plants.

    They are also relatively easy to trap. I catch 4 or 5 every year and relocate them.

  25. Mona Murray
    Warren, Ohio
    February 3, 3:36 pm

    Growing up as a child at my Grandfather’s farm about 30-40 miles from Punxsy, Pappy found twin babies and cared for them until the spring they didn’t come back. Piggy and Porky were darling as I have a phot of myself at about 4 yrs old holding them at the farm. Pappy figured one had been killed as he would hear the other one whistling every year.

  26. Stefan Sirucek
    February 3, 1:36 pm

    Phil the Groundhog DID see his shadow this year. And right on cue it’s snowing on the East Coast!

  27. an awsome person
    at my computer, posting a comment
    February 2, 6:36 pm

    so did the groundhog see its shadow this year?

  28. Karen Helms
    Cape Coral Florida
    February 2, 10:44 am

    This was a great Article! Animals are truly amazing ! This one sounds very clean, Love that it doesn’t have to go out to use the bathroom :) .And the timing thing, for mating/seeing it’s shadow for us, wow Nature again in it’s finest. Thank you!

  29. Deborah White
    Columbus Ohio
    February 2, 9:31 am

    You forgot, they climb. I’ve watched groundhogs climb trees and fences.It was not my imagination.

  30. Sharon K
    punxsutawney,Pennsylvania
    February 1, 4:16 pm

    these 8 things I didn’t know, and that they are related to the
    prairie dogs which are cousins, and they torpor, which being dullness and sluggishness, and the males wait for the matting
    time. theses are quite amazing creatures.

  31. Taryn
    United States
    February 1, 7:38 am

    Thanks for the fun article! However, regarding point #2, I feel compelled to point out, the well-known quandary to which you refer is, “How much wood *would* a woodchuck chuck *if* a woodchuck could chuck wood?” Whether or not the cute little rodent actually *could* — (the apparent lack of opposable thumbs alone suggests that would be unlikely) — is irrelevant. Thus the question remains far from settled! ;-)