By now, we all know that Punxsutawney Phil emerged from hibernation on February 2nd and saw his shadow, which means six more weeks of winter, but those of us on the coast of North Carolina who are enjoying warmer weather as of late are not putting a lot of stock in his prediction. We all know that Phil is a Groundhog turned weatherman, right? Groundhogs, also called “Woodchucks,” a name originating from the Cree Indian word “wuchak” and nicknamed “Whistlepigs,” because they are known to give a shrill whistle alarm that carries for quite a distance to warn other Groundhogs of impending danger, are native to North America including North Carolina and although found more often in the Western part of our state, they have expanded to our Piedmont and Coastal regions more recently. Although these little diggers aren’t prevalent yet on the coast, the few who are here can still run into trouble such as injury or illness that may require rehabilitation intervention at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. So, wildlife rehabilitators at our facility must be familiar with every species that could possibly come through the clinic door, even as rare in our area as they may be. Groundhogs are large pudgy-bodied mammals of the rodent family that weigh in at 5 to 12 pounds and can reach two feet in length. They are covered with coarse fur that ranges in color from brown to reddish or yellowish brown with a silver shine on the tips of their hair. Their head is short and wide. Groundhogs are well adapted for digging with their short, powerful limbs and five curved, thick claws on each foot. They will run on all fours and frequently stand on their hind feet to survey the area or sound the alarm. Their tail is densely haired, slightly flattened and one-fifth to one-third of the animal’s total length. A groundhog’s ears are short, broad, rounded and well haired, and their eyes are circular and small. Besides the high-pitched whistle they are known for, they also squeal when fighting, produce low barks and produce an unusual teeth grinding sound. They are diurnal animals which means they are most active during the early morning and late afternoon hours and not at night. Groundhogs have been observed climbing trees near residential areas or standing in open country at the edge of woodlands, but never too far from their burrow entrance. So they are comfortable in a variety of habitats such as pastures, brushy woodlots, open woods and areas along stream banks. Although they prefer forest habitats, the choices of under deck patios, sheds, in gardens and anything surrounded by wood or brush in residential areas are not ruled out. Woodchucks have adapted well to human activities such as agriculture and urban development. Therefore, taking up residence close to humans can become a problem for home owners when you consider the type of property damage Groundhogs are capable of as they dig networks of burrows under houses, sheds or any manmade structure. Please keep in mind that it has been stated by Humane Society professionals that it would take a lot of woodchucks working over many years to create tunnel systems that would pose any significant risk to a structure. However, Groundhogs leave their mark everywhere they go by chewing, gnawing, digging and causing the disappearance of tasty flowers, fruits and vegetables. Gardeners are usually not too happy with their presence. Woodchucks enjoy a strict herbivore diet and prefer the more tender parts of new growth from a variety of wild and cultivated, succulent plants such as clover, alfalfa and grasses. They hibernate during the winter from November until February. Mating occurs in March or April, and four to six young are produced after a 32-day gestation period, and of course, like all furry mammal babies, they are adorable! The young, called “Chucklings,” are born blind, helpless, toothless, almost naked and weigh one to two ounces, and because they are mammals, they will nurse for about 3 months. Between 3 to 5 months the youngsters will leave the birth area and head out on their own to burrow their own den. Groundhogs become sexually mature at one year and can have two litters annually. Although groundhogs are the most solitary of all marmots, which are burrowing rodents, several individuals may occupy adjacent burrows or dens. Burrows with den chambers 20 inches to three feet below ground will have five to eight entrance/exists to enable rapid escape from predators, such as coyote, fox, bobcat, eagle, cougar, dog, wolf and man. Snakes pose the most threat to infant Groundhogs. Despite this little plant lover’s tendency to wreck a garden and dig tunnels that could compromise some structural integrity, they also do some good in the world! Although an indirect benefit, Groundhogs’ burrows become homes for animals such as fox and skunks who feed upon mice, grasshoppers, bugs and other menacing creatures that would destroy a farmer’s crops. A groundhog’s expert digging skills also brings healthy and nutritious subsoil to the surface.
The presence of Woodchucks has been responsible for unearthing artifacts such as pottery and stones that archeologists then claim as a new dig site. This unique animal with a variety of names, is very interesting to watch, but if you encounter a Groundhog, it is best NOT to make or attempt physical contact, because they can bite and may carry certain zoonotic conditions that can be passed from them to you. Observation while keeping your distance is always the best policy. In zoo environments or wildlife sanctuaries where non-releaseable Groundhogs serve as Education Ambassadors, their recorded life spans have reached 9 to 14 years, but the average life expectancy for a Woodchuck in the wild is only 2 to 3 years. If by chance a “WhistlePig” reaches 5 or 6 years in the wild, that is considered an extremely long and lucky life!
author of “Save Them All“