Woodchucks belong to the marmot (large ground squirrel) family and goes by a variety of names- groundhog, thickwood Badger, monax, wood-shock, whistler, whistlepig (due to a warning sound made through their big front teeth), moonack, weenusk, red monk and in our family – PEST! Found throughout North America, woodchucks are primarily in the eastern United States and much of southern Canada. This morning it was spotted in south central Massachusetts, in our lakeside gardens. In New England, they inhabit both urban and suburban yards, fields, meadows, woodland clearings and are often found along grassy edged highways.
How do you identify a woodchuck? Look for a brown, thickly coated critter with small ears and beady little brown eyes, about 16 – 20 inches in length with a six-inch tail, weighing anywhere between six and 12 pounds. They have short, strong legs designed for digging and large front incisors. Despite their stocky appearance, woodchucks are accomplished swimmers and occasionally climb trees to survey their surroundings or escape when being chased. Luckily for them, they don’t have many predators to worry about because of their size, although foxes, hawks, raccoons, coyotes, and dogs will go after their young.
Normally you won’t find a woodchuck active during the day, as they are diurnal. They live in extensive burrows two-to six-feet deep and up to 40 feet long. Burrows contain many chambers for various functions, such as love nest, sleeping, nursery, bad weather hideout or waste. There can be as many as five openings in the den for the woodchuck to come and go. The main entrance will usually have a big dirt mound to the side for the woodchuck to observe or rest.
In summertime, you will spot a woodchuck feeding in early morning and late afternoon, spending the remainder of the day snoozing or sun bathing. Such a life! In late summer, they begin to bulk up with weight in preparation for moving to their winter dens – one of the true hibernators found in Massachusetts. Interestingly while hibernating from October to April, their body temperature drops from 99 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, while the heartbeat slows from 100 to four beats per minute!
Mating doesn’t occur until the spring of their second year. In the wild their average lifespan is between five to six years. Females raise their young on their own after a 32-day gestation period. One litter will contain four to six kits or chuckling. After weaning around six weeks old, they are ready to leave the burrow with their mother. Once late summer arrives the kits venture off to discover the world on their own.
The diet of a woodchuck is primarily vegetarian (herbivorous) and this is where our garden trouble begins. They feed on a variety of grasses, clover, alfalfa, dandelion, and many varieties of wild and cultivated flowers. They also enjoy blackberries, cherries, raspberries, and other fruits (our blueberries), along with hickory and maple tree bark. It is understood, a fresh vegetable garden is a favorite feeding table for the seemingly always hungry woodchuck. Common veggies preferences include broccoli, peas, beans, carrot tops, lettuce, and squash. Basically, everything we planted this spring! On the flower side, they target asters, daisies, lilies, marigolds, pansies, phlox, snapdragons, and sunflowers. I would add lupines to the list, as we saw our annoying woodchuck strip young lupine stalks like he was eating corn on the cob! It should be noted that they also will munch on grasshoppers, June bugs, grubs, snails, and other large insects when the green leafy delicacies become sparse.
Woodchucks are notorious for being a serious nuisance around farms and gardens. Fencing is the only viable humane solution to protect vegetation from these hungry rodents. Chicken wire fences that not only go up with a bend outwards at the top, but are buried down at least a foot underground can often work as a deterrent. Another method is to lay the chicken wire around the garden perimeter and secure a four to six-foot-tall fence. These critters climb and dig, so you must build up, down and around if possible. Other options include repellents – planting gopher plant or crown imperial fritillary around the garden or sprinkling the areas with fox or coyote urine, diluted Tabasco sauce, red pepper flakes, or human hair. If you have a dog, allow your pet to periodically visit the garden area to “mark” his or her territory.
Finally, woodchucks like all mammals, carry rabies and are known to be aggressive. Avoid close contact. Don’t even consider relocating a woodchuck in Massachusetts, as it is illegal. Darn. What’s a gardener to do? Ever see the movie Caddy Shack with Bill Murray?