Get to Know the Groundhog

Get to Know the Groundhog

Groundhog (Marmota monax)

The groundhog is amember of the Marmot family of large ground squirrels which includes 14 species. Other close relatives include the yellow-bellied marmot and hoary marmot.

The groundhog has many aliases: woodchuck, chuck, groundpig, whistlepig, thickwood badger, moonack, land beaver, and more.

Groundhogs live up to six years in the wild and up to 14 in captivity. They prefer to build their complex multi-entrance burrows on edges of woodlands, pastures, and hills or riverbanks. This gives them an easy way to spot predators and retreat if need be. Human activity provides good habitat for groundhogs as these areas are usually free of their major predators.  High ground provides good drainage for their burrows.

Mostly herbivorous, groundhogs eat primarily wild grasses and other vegetation, including berries and agricultural crops, when available.

Thought not to drink water, groundhogs are reported to obtain needed liquids from the juices of food-plants, aided by their sprinkling with rain or dew.

Groundhog burrows usually have two to five entrances, providing groundhogs their primary means of escape from predators.

Predators of the groundhog in our region include coyotes, foxes, and rarely, owls. Other predators which are not found in the Chicago region are badgers and bobcats.

When alarmed, the groundhog will often retreat to their burrow and will use their sharp teeth and claws to fight off a predator. They also will emit a loud whistle when startled, which gives them the name “whistlepig”

The groundhog is one of the few species that undergoes true hibernation. They build a winter burrow that is deeper than the frost line and engage in autumn hyperphagia, which means they increase their caloric intake in the autumn to build extra fat reserves for hibernation.

During hibernation, their body temperature and respiration drops and their heart rate reduces to as little as four beats per minute.

Groundhogs are mostly diurnal, and are most active early in the morning or late afternoon

The male and female come together for the breeding season, but are not together year round. They are often territorial and you will not usually see multiple family groups living together in a single location. You will usually see a mother with some of her offspring with a male that comes around during the breeding season.

Finally, the question remains: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Cornell University says 700 pounds! However, the name does not have anything to do with chucking wood, it actually comes from a Native American word, wuchak, which roughly translates to “digger.”

Photo courtesy: Indiana Department of Natural Resources