Monday, April 27, 2015

W is for Woodchuck

Photri Images
Woodchucks go by several other names. I call them groundhogs, others call them whistlepigs, and some call them varmints. We'll get to reasons for that later. They are a rodent and in the same family as squirrels, prairie dogs, and marmots. Woodchucks are found across Canada and are common in the middle and eastern US. Prairie dogs and marmots are more common in the west.

They are fat with short little legs but run pretty fast considering the body they have to work with. However, they'd never win a race with their cousins, the squirrels. Their average size is 20 inches (50 cm) long and 10 pounds (4.5 kg). However, they can be double that size. They have coarse brown and gray fur. It's so coarse that they have never been hunted for it.

Groundhogs are herbivores and especially like clover and other tender grasses and plants. And every once in a while when they decide they don't want to pigeonholed into only one category (herbivores), they sneak in an insect or grub. They feed in groups and always have a lookout. When danger is sensed like a fox nearby, the guard groundhog gives a very shrill warning whistle. That's why the woodchuck/groundhog is called whistlepig by some.

They have 22 teeth to eat this food with. The front two incisors continuously grow (like rodent's teeth do), so they constantly have to be using them to keep them from becoming 10 feet long. They have molars in the back to grind their food. And as with most herbivores, there is a large gap between their front teeth and their back teeth.

I found this skull in my backyard in the same area where we see the groundhog holes. Notice the herbivore tooth pattern.

Groundhogs live in burrows and they are animals that do a true hibernation. That means when they curl their fat bodies up in their burrows in November, they don't emerge to eat until March. Their body temperatures drop and they can't see or feel things. I think it's amazing that some mammals can do this. I usually think about fish or frogs doing the body temperature drop thing in the winter, but groundhogs do it too.

Fresh digging (in March) at one of the entrances to
the groundhog burrows in the backyard.
Groundhogs breed once a year and usually have litters of 2-6 cubs. They stay with their mother (dad leaves the den as soon as they are born) for about 6 weeks until they are ready to go into the world to seek their fortune.

As forests were cut down, groundhogs were one of the animals that increased in population instead of decreased. When forestland was turned into farmland, the groundhogs found out they really liked what the farmer was growing like tomatoes, lettuce, beans, etc. Talk to almost anyone and they can tell you their frustration with the groundhog and what it has eaten out of their garden. Thus the name varmint that the groundhog is not so fondly called by many.

Who knew I had so much to say about groundhogs/woodchucks/whistlepigs? I didn't even get to my personal anecdotes, but this is getting a little long. Those will have to be on another day. I wonder if I can work them in under X, Y, or Z?

Woodchucks by Emilie U. Lepthien, Copyright 1992.