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Today is Woodchuck Day!

Unlike what the rhyme would have you believe the woodchuck did not get its name from chucking wood.  The name came from the Algonquin word “wuchak” or “wejack”.

The  tongue twister originated from a 1902 song “The Woodchuck Song” written by R. H. Davis in the musical “The Runaways”. 

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,

if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

A woodchuck wood chuck all the wood he could,

if a woodchuck could chuck wood.

The woodchuck, Marmota monax, has a variety of names including groundhog, whistling pig, marmot, and gopher.  “Groundhog”, due to their stocky body and their elaborate underground burrows, up to 40 feet long, 2-5 feet deep, with 3-4 entrances, with the main entrance visible with large mounds of soil, within the tunnel they also have a nesting chamber and toileting chamber.  Sometimes they have a separate burrow for summer and winter. 

When they are alarmed they make a high pitched whistle to alert other woodchuck hence the name “whistling pig”.  In addition to whistling they also communicate through squeals, barks and tooth grinding. 

The western name “gopher”, although sometimes used for woodchuck, is an entirely different family.  Gophers were made famous by Bill Murray in the 1980 comedy Caddyshack or 1993 Groundhog Day.  Pocket gophers are in the family Geomyidae,  woodchucks are the largest member of the squirrel family Sciuridae in this area. 

There are other species of “marmots” found out west – hoary marmots, yellow-bellied marmots and Olympic National Park has its own marmot – the Olympic marmot.  So all woodchucks are marmots, but not all marmots are woodchucks.  

This is the reason we use Latin names, to help distinguish the species we are referring to.  Woodchuck are rodents, related to mice, squirrels, porcupines, beaver, chipmunks and even prairie dogs.  Unlike most rodents, they do not have orange teeth, but instead their teeth are white to ivory-white.  Their four incisors grow at 1/16 inch per week and they need to gnaw on wood to wear them down. 

Due to the change in our landscapes the woodchuck is now more abundant than during colonial times.  They are well adapted to living in urban or suburban yards, fields, meadows, woodland clearings and often seen along highways.  They have a keen sense of smell and hearing.  They can close over their ear openings to keep out debris.  They have short, powerful limbs and curved sharp claws for digging and a short bushy, almost flattened tail.  Their range goes from eastern Alaska through Canada into eastern United States south to northern Georgia.

Woodchucks…or groundhogs have their own annual holiday on February 2 – Groundhog Day!  It is believed that in the 1770s German settlers brought this holiday to the United States.  In Germany they had celebrated Candlemas Day between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox.  They looked at a badger to check for a shadow and if the weather was fair on Candlemas Day the second half of winter would be stormy and cold. Since there are no badgers in the eastern US they turned to groundhogs to forecast the weather.  The most famous groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil from Pennsylvania.  The first official Groundhog Day celebration took place on February 2, 1887 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. 

Woodchucks are considered true hibernators.  They spend 4-5 months, October – March, hibernating, with their heart rate falling from 100 beats per minute to 10-15, their temperature dropping to 40oF and their breathing rate going down to 1 breath every 5-6 minutes.  Some studies do indicate that they may sleep for a week, but wake up for 3-4 days and this cycle goes on 12-20 times while they are hibernating.  They do not eat during this time and are nourished from fat reserves.  While hibernating they lose as much as half their body weight. They can weigh up to 15 pounds.  The males emerge before the females.  One study indicated that the males sometimes wake up in February to check out burrows to see if females are there and then go back to sleep for another month.

As herbivores they eat a variety of plant materials – succulent plants and trees, leaves, twigs and fruit, but occasionally they eat grubs, grasshoppers, insects and snails.  They  are primarily terrestrial, but can climb trees and are considered good swimmers.  They are most active early morning and late afternoon.  They rarely travel far from their burrow entrance so they can quickly jump down to escape predators – dogs, foxes, coyotes and bobcats.  Baby groundhogs, called kits, pups or sometimes chucklings, do fall prey to raptors – hawks, owls and eagles.

Woodchucks are generally solitary, but a mated pair will remain in the den for the month long gestation period.  The male then leaves and a litter of 2-6 blind, hairless and helpless babies are born.  By the end of August the young go off to burrow on their own.  They live up to 6 years, 2-3 years being common, with one in captivity living 14 years.

Woodchucks are viewed as both celebrities and villains. Because they feed in gardens and on agricultural crops and they create large burrows, they are villains.  They are beneficial since other animals use the burrows they create.  In some areas they are hunted for food and their pelts.  At times they are celebrities, as stated they even have their very own holiday. Villain, celebrity or a combination of the two – what do you think? 




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