Where Does the Woodchuck Get Its Name From?
The woodchuck — whose scientific name is Marmota monax — is more commonly called by one of several other names, such as groundhog, whistle pig, or even land beaver. Woodchucks are rodents from the group of large ground squirrels called marmots.
So what’s up with all the different names? Woodchucks live all over the United States. Because they can be found in so many different areas, they came to be known by unique names in different regions. For example, some people call them whistle pigs. When woodchucks are threatened, they will squeal loudly. Their squeal sounds somewhat like a whistle. This warns other woodchucks of danger and may also scare off predators.
In those areas where they’re known as woodchucks, it’s not because they like to chuck wood. Native Americans had several different names for woodchucks: otchek (Cree), otchig (Ojibwa), and wuchak (Algonquian). English settlers used the more familiar sounds of their own language to come up with a word that sounded like these Native American names. That’s how “woodchuck” came about. The name woodchuck is kind of funny, though.
While there are several species of marmots in North America, our woodchuck is found mostly in the eastern United States and across much of southern Canada. In New England, woodchucks inhabit both urban and suburban yards, fields, meadows, woodland clearings, and we see them frequently in grassy areas along highways.
Woodchucks have short, muscular legs designed for digging, and large front incisors that they must wear down by chewing to curb tooth growth. They often grow up to 20 inches in length, with a tail that measures roughly six inches long, and generally weigh between six and 12 pounds.
Woodchucks are active during the day. In summer they commonly feed in the early morning and the late afternoon, spending the rest of the day sleeping or basking in the sun.
Woodchucks are among the few true hibernators found in Massachusetts. In late summer they begin to put on weight in preparation for the move to their winter dens, often located in wooded areas. They hibernate from October through March. While hibernating, a woodchuck’s body temperature drops from 99°F to 40°F, and its heartbeat drops from 100 beats per minute to 4 beats per minute!
They don’t have too many predators because of their size, though foxes, raccoons, hawks, and dogs will go after young. Mainly vegetarians, woodchucks feed on a variety of grasses and chickweeds, clover, plantains, and many varieties of wild and cultivated flowers. They eat blackberries, raspberries, cherries, and other fruits, along with the bark of hickory and maple trees. Of course, to the chagrin of gardeners, woodchucks love fresh produce, as well. They will even eat grasshoppers, June bugs, and other large insects.
Woodchucks do not mate until their second year. (The average life span for a woodchuck in the wild is five to six years.) Males and females breed in March or April, after which they have no further contact; the female raises the young alone.
Woodchucks give birth from early April to mid-May following a 32-day gestation period. One litter contains four to six kits. The young open their eyes at four weeks and are weaned at six weeks, when they’re ready to leave the burrow with their mother. In the fall the young woodchucks venture off to seek their own territories.
Woodchucks live in extensive burrows two- to six-feet deep and up to 40 feet long that contain numerous chambers with specific functions, such as for nesting or for wastes. You can usually spot the main entrance by an adjacent large mound of dirt, which these animals use for observation and sun-basking. In addition, there may be as many as five other openings to the den.
To the dismay of gardeners, woodchucks love fresh vegetables and flowers. Additionally, some homeowners find the burrowing holes woodchucks dig in the lawn a nuisance. Fortunately, there are several non-lethal ways to deter these animals. Every year on February 2, Americans turn their attention to a small furry little animal. According to legend, if the groundhog (or woodchuck) sees his or her shadow there will be six more weeks of winter, but if not, spring is on the way. The peculiarity of this tradition has earned it a beloved place in American folklore.