Beyond the Shadow of the Woodchuck

Beyond the Shadow of the Woodchuck

Frances Figart

By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director

Woodchuck. Photo courtesy of Tim Parker
The woodchuck is the largest ground squirrel in the deciduous forests of the eastern United States. Photo courtesy of Tim Parker.

Whether you call him a woodchuck or a groundhogwhether you consider her precious or a pestyou must admit this charismatic critter has captivated minds and hearts around the globe due to having something few other animals enjoy, its very own holiday.

Indifferent about what these toothy creatures are called, Smokies Supervisory Wildlife Biologist Bill Stiver admits we do not know how many are in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“They prefer open fields and forest or road edges,” he said. “Most of the park is forested so their habitat is limited to the fields, streams, and meadows around Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, the road shoulder along the Spur, and similar places.”

Weighing between five and 13 pounds, and measuring from 16 to 26 inches in length, Marmota monax is “the only member of the genus Marmota found in the East, in contrast to the five species that reside in the West,” according to “Mammals of the Smokies” published by Great Smoky Mountains Association.

The book goes on to describe this mammal as “the largest ground squirrel in the deciduous forests of the eastern United States.”

The woodchuck—as they are often called in older literature of the Southern Appalachians— forages mostly at ground level, feasting on ​herbaceous vegetation such as grasses, clover, dandelion, stonecrop, vegetable gardens, and fruits like blackberries. They also like to munch on bark and the buds of trees and shrubs. A groundhog's teeth can grow one sixteenth of an inch in just one week!

Groundhogs make complex burrow systems with several nest chambers and rooms for storing their waste. They have a 32-day gestation period and deliver four to nine young, which are called kits or cubs. Typically, these rodents live two to six years in the wild, and populations can spread out to one individual per ten acres. If threated, they may climb trees. An alarmed woodchuck will stand upright on its hind legs next to its burrow entrance and utter a sharp whistle—hence the moniker whistle-pig. 

Groundhog. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Kepler
Groundhogs have a 32-day gestation period and deliver four to nine young, which are called kits or cubs. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Kepler.

Why do they hang out right beside the road without seeming to even notice the cars and trucks noisily whizzing by? ​“The road shoulder provides the habitat, or grasses, they need to thrive,” said Stiver, “and they become habituated to the traffic.”

Given the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition of the groundhog emerging on February 2 and the legend Punxsutawney Phil has become, something everyone wants to know is: Do groundhogs in the Smokies region actually hibernate? Stiver says: “Yes. Their heart rate drops to as low as four beats per minute, their temperature drops to below 68 degrees, and they will lose more than 30 percent of their body weight during hibernation.”

Lots of folks consider groundhogs and their progeny pests because they get into the garden and help themselves, pilfering everything from lettuce and carrots to corn and beans. Even Thoreau in his “Walden” chapter “The Bean-Field” wrote: “My enemies are worms, cool days, and most of all woodchucks.”

But the woodchuck does provide some benefits for our environment. “They are a source of food for predators like bear, coyote, foxes, and birds of prey,” Stiver said. “Plus, other animals—opossums, rabbits, skunks, foxes, snakes, amphibians, and box turtles—use their burrows for shelter. They are a natural part of the ecosystem in the park.”

 

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