Consider the ubiquitous woodchuck (also known as the groundhog); an animal found from Labrador to Alabama; throughout all of the eastern U.S., west to Kansas, Nebraska, and the northern tip of Idaho; from eastern Alaska all the way across the southern half of Canada.
We’ve all heard that Punxsutawney Phil will emerge from hibernation on February 2, look for his shadow, and predict the weather for the next six weeks. While this is legend, of course, male woodchucks will interrupt their hibernation in late winter and make forays across the snow to search for female burrows or to establish breeding territories. Such activity elevates the body temperature to a level necessary for spermatogenesis to occur, guaranteeing that males will be ready when it’s time to mate.
While the males are working on their spermatogenesis, prospective female mates are sleeping in. This saves vital energy for the rigors of reproduction and raising the family. Woodchucks breed immediately after the females emerge in March, and, following a month-long gestation, their young are born just in time for the green-up of succulent vegetation.
Everyone knows about the woodchuck’s penchant for peas, carrots, young corn, and other vegetable garden and farm crops, but the incredible diversity of foods that woodchucks consume can still come as a surprise. I remember being dumbfounded as I watched an odd beaver-like animal swimming to shore with a pond lily stem in its mouth. Upon landing, its identification was clear. I watched in fascination as the groundhog sat upright, grasped the stem in its paws, and consumed it before reentering the water to do it all over again.
In our region, common foods include sedges, grasses, wild strawberries, plantain, clover, alfalfa, goldenrod, trout lilies, dandelions, daisies, vetch, and the fine stems and fruit of apples, serviceberries, and blackberries. In early spring – before the green-up of herbaceous plants – the buds, bark, and tender twigs of sumac, dogwood, and black cherry are also consumed. Woodchucks eat occasional invertebrates, including crickets, grasshoppers, snails, and June bugs.
Like most rodents, woodchucks’ hind feet are larger than their front feet. Five toes will show on hind feet tracks and the stoutclawed forefeet register only four toes. The pollex (or thumb toe) does not register in tracks because it is reduced to a small stump tipped with a tiny blunt nail (see photo). The most distinctive features to look for in woodchuck tracks are the one-three-one toe arrangement of the hind feet and the pock-marked appearance of the track impression, which is created by knobby pads that protrude from the fleshy base of the feet. The tiered arrangement of three and two pads on the front feet, and a semi-circle of four pads behind the long toes of the hind feet, help differentiate a woodchuck track from that of a raccoon or beaver.
We’ll often see a woodchuck near its burrow. Fresh dirt pushed out of the entrance reveals that a groundhog is actively using and retrofitting its subterranean refuge. Fecal matter is rarely found, because it is deposited within the burrow. When exclusively in use by a groundhog (and not enlarged to accommodate other occupants, including foxes, coyotes, and raccoons), burrow entrances measure between five and six-and-a-half inches in diameter. Evidence of teeth marks on tree roots near a burrow’s entrance can sometimes be found.
I once watched a woodchuck gnawing on a root, followed by cheek-rubbing the fresh bite marks. I am convinced that the woodchuck was scent-marking, using its saliva and secretions from sudoriferous (sweat) facial glands to communicate its presence.
Susan C. Morse is founder and program director of Keeping Track in Huntington, Vermont.