Friday, September 15, 2006

Groundhogs, Whistle Pigs or Woodchucks

Also known as woodchucks, whistle pigs, and other names, this animal is part of the rodent family tied in with the Squirrel part of that family. Growing up in Pennsylvania we called them groundhogs probably because of PA being the state that has the groundhog nationally known for Groundhog Day. They are actually closely related to ground squirrels, chipmunks, and prairie dogs. They dig burrows which also provide excellent escape and hiding places for other animals in fields and sometimes woods if no other habitat is available. We've never seen any here at the wooded Bluebird Cove, but we have seen one down the street where there are some field habitats.

Their fuzzy little 6-inch tail seems short compared to their 20-26 inch long body. Groundhogs have yellowish-brown to blackish-brown fur. Light-colored hairs in the coat give some individuals a grizzled appearance. Their two front teeth are broad and chisel-shaped like those of rabbits and squirrels, using them to cut vegetation for meals. Those meals are generally found within a half mile of their home range, preferring to stay close to the safety of its burrow. Their dietary preferences don't require it to travel far since they will eat grass, alfalfa, clover, dandelion, and even vegetables such as peas, carrots, fresh corn, beans and will even eat fruits. They use their front paws much like we do our hands to grab stems of a plant or to hold fruit while feeding. They are active mostly during the early morning and late evening, although the little guy mentioned in my comments was feeding both times in late afternoon in downtown Charlottesville.

These cuties have a muscular body, short powerful legs and sturdy claws, so they are an excellent excavator of burrows where they spend much of their time. When they make their burrow they will use the dirt to build a mound at the main entrance to the burrow, similar to the prairie dog. They use their strong forefeet to loosen the soil, then kick the dirt behind them with their hind feet. This is a photo we took of him on the sidewalk, so he's not doing any digging there.

They often dig many side tunnels and two or three back entrances. These "drop holes" are inconspicuous since they are not marked with a mound like the main entrance. Burrows are usually located in well-drained, sloping areas to avoid flooding.

Even with short legs, it can run pretty fast for short distances. Their predators are dogs, foxes and coyotes, although the young ones are prey for hawks and owls. They can climb well and use this to avoid encounters, being able to climb trees and even come down head first. When they are angry or cornered they chatter their teeth. They got the name of whistle pig because their alarm call is a sharp whistle. When feeding, they make a chuck-chuck sound which may be how they got their woodchuck name.

They hibernate in winter so they eat heavily in Summer and early Fall to put on body fat and prepare for Winter's hibernation. At this time their temperature drops from over 90 degrees into the low 40's and their heartbeat slows to 4 beats a minute from the usual 100. In the spring, males emerge from hibernation before females, and during February and March fight aggressively. After a 28-day gestation period, females bear young in April and early May. Litters average 3-4 young with newborns being blind, naked and helpless, so they remain in the underground nest until they're a month old. By mid-June or early July, they are ready to leave the home burrows and establish their own territories.

Skunks, raccoons and foxes remodel vacant burrows and use them to bear and raise young. Foxes may claim a burrow after killing its woodchuck owner. Rabbits often seek shelter in the dens especially during winter while the chucks are hibernating below. Animals pursued by predators or hunters also use the burrows as escape hatches.

No comments:

Share This Post