The groundhog belongs to a group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. Weighing up to 15 pounds, woodchucks are amongst the largest members of the squirrel family Sciuridae (in the Rodentia order), which also includes chipmunks and prairie dogs.
Principally herbivores, groundhogs eat a variety of plants, including, grasses, fruit, tree bark, and vegetables from your garden. However, woodchucks will also consider grubs, insects, and snails.
Common Names of Woodchucks
The etymology of the Woodchuck originates from several indigenous cultures that named the marmot based on its behavior. To answer the most common question concerning the woodchuck vs. groundhog, the two species are indeed the same, both sharing the Latin name Marmota monax.
Interestingly, the name Woodchuck has little to do with wood or chucking. Like the Muskrat, the name evolved from the Native American Algonquin peoples of Eastern Canada and New England, (or possibly Narraganset) who called them Wuchak, which translates to “the digger.”
Other indigenous titles include Wejack, Otchek (Cree) Woodshaw, Woodchoock. Today, most North Americans call the animal groundhogs, while people of the United Kingdom refer to them as woodchucks.
Woodchucks or groundhogs are also known as Whistle pigs, especially in the Appalachian area of the United States. This name is explained by the high-pitched whistle sound emitted by groundhogs to alert other members of the colony to danger. Groundhogs typically reserve this call when they sense predators like coyotes and foxes.
People occasionally call groundhogs land-beaver due to the shared characteristics they have with beavers, namely their appearance as large furry brown rodents. However, there are many differences between woodchucks and beavers.
What Does a Woodchuck Look Like?
These stout animals are roughly the size of a large cat or small dog. Stocky and usually gray or varying shades of brown in color, groundhogs can grow up to two feet long and weigh more than 10 pounds. Other identifying features include short and bushy tails, rounded ears, and dark brown or black paws. Their bodies are also covered with guard hairs that give the mammal a grizzled look.
Their compact, rotund bodies have short, powerful legs and chisel-like teeth. The eyes, ears, and nose are located at the top of their heads for safely peering out of dens to spot danger. Usually tan to brown in color, woodchucks are approximately two feet long, including their tails, and weigh up to 14 pounds.
Woodchucks can look like gophers, which are much smaller, and beavers, which live near water and have wide, flat tails.
Inhabiting much of the Eastern United States, groundhogs are usually found in areas bordering forests. Woodchucks like to live in open pastures, fields, and other lands near wooded areas. They dig their burrows along fence lines, stone walls, trees, and buildings. As plant-eaters, the animals prefer having ample vegetation nearby.
This predisposition also attracts them to residential yards, where they can burrow under sheds and barns and use nearby plants and gardens for food.
Groundhogs are herbivores, eating mostly grass, berries, and clovers. They are active during the day feeding in the morning and afternoon and the retreat to their den to sleep.
Woodchucks are true hibernators. Hibernation typically starts in October and lasts until March. Woodchucks breed after hibernation typically in March and April. The gestation period lasts 32 days, and they typically give birth to four to six kits.
Signs of Woodchucks
Homeowners rarely see woodchuck scat because they typically build extraordinary chambers underground where they will go to the bathroom. Burrows and their effects are quite noticeable. A clear sign of an active burrow is bits of vegetation near the main entrance to their burrows. Other noticeable signs include gnawing trees and shrubs and destroyed gardens.
Groundhog holes in yards and gardens are typically easy to spot. Nearly a foot in diameter, they can be distinguished from most other holes created by wildlife due to the large mounds of excavated soil that sit nearby. When burrowing, they make lawns unsightly and uneven, creating hazards for humans and impacting lawn care. Underground watering systems and wiring is often damaged by the pests as they burrow.
The main entrance is typically the most noticeable, as other openings tend to be well-hidden and can be more difficult to locate. Groundhog holes lead to a network of chambers and tunnels with multiple entrances. These burrows can extend up to 40 feet!
Other animals have been known to use a groundhog burrow. Raccoons, skunks, and opossums will use a burrow during the winter. Abandoned groundhog burrows can attract chipmunks, cottontail rabbits, voles, weasels, snakes, foxes, and coyotes.
Their burrow systems leave behind excavated earth and holes that can be hazardous to farm animals and equipment. As rodents, groundhogs also gnaw on wood to sharpen their teeth, which leads to ornamental shrub damage.
The biggest issues caused by groundhogs result from their feeding habits. Groundhogs are true hibernators. Therefore, they are most destructive in early fall because they eat almost constantly to pack on fat. Woodchucks gorge themselves during summer and autumn to store fat for hibernation. Farmers and gardeners alike detest these pests, as they eat any vegetation near their den sites.
Since they gnaw to trim their long front teeth, they can also destroy small trees, shrubs, or bushes. Additionally, groundhogs can carry diseases, such as tularemia and rabies, and serve as hosts to botflies, mites, ticks, fleas, and lice.
How Do I Get Rid of Woodchucks?
Groundhogs are smart and resourceful, so they can often outwit humans. When it comes to rodents, prevention is of paramount importance, because they’re often very difficult to eradicate once dug in (no pun intended). Try to identify and remove anything in your yard that might attract a groundhog.
While repellents and toxicants are not available for private use, there are some fumigants on the market. These are usually toxic gasses, like carbon monoxide cartridges, that are pumped into burrows. However, these are highly dangerous, and states have laws regulating their use.
Effective groundhog control requires proper identification of the main tunnel system. Homeowners can waste time, money, and effort targeting the wrong tunnels. Humane live traps can be effective if set correctly, though there are several factors to consider:
- Traps should be placed near burrow entrances or where damage is most obvious.
- Cover traps with grass or dark canvas to make them more inviting to groundhogs.
- Baiting traps with lettuce, peas, or apple slices can entice the pests to enter.
Though groundhog traps may help, capturing the pests leads to other issues. Trapped animals must be removed, though simply releasing them elsewhere relocates rather than solves the problem. Additionally, catching diseased pests could expose people to rabies. Body-grip traps are also available, though their set-up can be complicated and still requires trappers to handle pest remains.
Exclusion is the best deterrent for groundhogs. There are several methods that can be used to keep groundhogs away:
- Fencing – Effective fences are three feet high, made of heavy wire or mesh, and buried a foot underground. In addition, fences should be set at an angle to prevent climbing.
- Wiring – Welded wire panels can also be buried to cover abandoned burrows and prevent future use.
- Habitat alteration – Remove what attracts groundhogs to yards, including underbrush and high grass that can be used as hiding places.
- Harassment and frightening – Put foul-smelling soiled kitty litter or hot peppers near burrows. Property owners can also destroy tunnels or use balloons attached to a string to mimic human activity.
The best groundhog deterrent, though, is a fence. Groundhogs can climb and burrow, you’ll need to use six-foot wide woven-wire fencing, with four feet above the ground and two feet below. It goes without saying that a fence this robust would keep out many animals, not just groundhogs.