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It’s in your nature: Marmota monax

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    The woodchuck keeps a low profile when feeding, will sit erect occasionally to look for danger, and has eyes and ears located near the top of its head as two important adaptations. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    Woodchucks don’t “score any points” with homeowners when they burrow under garages or backyard building foundations.

Published February 02. 2019 06:38AM

Groundhog, marmot, whistle pig, chuck or woodchuck; take your pick; all are one and the same. (Marmota monax is its scientific name) Officially named a woodchuck, I thought I would use Groundhog Day to offer some information on this well-known rodent.

Famous for its prognostication skills, it of course has as much ability to predict spring’s arrival as you and I. Actually, you probably know that these mammals are true hibernators, and I doubt that a single woodchuck is out of its winter den on any Feb. 2 day.

It is considered a pest by backyard gardeners and farmers, and its diet is the reason. They feed only on plant matter, with grasses, weeds, leaves of low shrubs, and of course clover, alfalfa and unfortunately your red beets or carrots.

A woodchuck “grazes” voraciously so it can add as many calories in order to build up its critical body fat. A September woodchuck looks rather plump as it continues to store up the fat needed for its long hibernation.

Woodchucks are excellent burrowers. The one entrance hole can usually be easily identified by the raised mound of dirt and stones it pushes out behind it as it digs. The mound can be 2 or 3 feet in diameter and sometimes 18 inches high. The burrow has a more “secret” entrance which is often hidden 15 or 20 feet from the other opening. This usually doesn’t have the stone and dirt pile near it. The burrow can have another short passage or two underground as well. Their burrows become their resting, denning, nursery and escape passages.

Like most burrowing animals, its external ears are rather small for ease of moving in and out of the den. The “chucks” also have their noses and eyes on top of their head so they can ease up to the den entrance to scan for potential danger (predators). Thus they don’t need to poke their entire head out into the open.

Young woodchucks fall prey to hawks, and when mature, foxes and coyotes prey on them. Those denning on highway embankments have their numbers thinned by automobiles. If you had an aerial view, a woodchuck den would be quite noticeable because the crops in a 20-25 yard radius would be clipped off close to the ground.

For as destructive as they are to farmers, woodchucks are very important to other wildlife. Foxes and coyotes rely on enlarging “chuck” burrows to raise their young. Cottontail rabbits when being pursued by hunting dogs or foxes dash into a burrow for safety. Skunks and opossums use dens to winter sleep a few weeks at a time in bitter cold temperatures. Worth noting is that woodchucks are actually excellent climbers (related to ground squirrels). They can quickly scramble up a stout trunk if blocked from their den or climb apple trees to reach my “Honeycrisp” apples 4 or 5 feet up in the tree.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The _____ nests in tree cavities/nest boxes. A. Black-capped chickadee, B. tufted titmouse, C. white-breasted nuthatch, D. house wren, E. all of these.

Last Week’s Trivia: Even though bear and deer are most active at night, they do feed and forage during the day as well, but the flying squirrel is strictly a nocturnal mammal, avoiding the more numerous daytime predators.

Contact Barry Reed at

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