Whether you call them groundhog, woodchucks or whistle-pigs, they are one of the 14 species of ground squirrels, also known as marmots. These rodents live a feast-or-famine lifestyle as these are one of the largest members of the squirrel family. They gorge themselves all summer to build up bountiful reserves of fat, then they go back to their sleep. Groundhogs’ heart rate plunges while they hibernate, and its body temperature is not warmer than the temperature within its burrow. 

Adult woodchuck

Adult groundhogs range anywhere from 16 to 22 inches in length and weigh anywhere between 5 and 13 pounds. Their bodies are compact and chunky and covered in brownish-gray fur with a short tail. Groundhogs have four legs, and their front feet also have long, curved claws for digging burrows

Groundhogs are extensively distributed throughout North America, which range as far south as Alabama and as far north as Alaska. They create extensive burrows with numerous entrances and spaces, anywhere from 8 to 66 feet deep. Some groundhogs also dig more than one hole in the ground. These mammals prefer to keep to themselves; only when it’s time to mate, they get close to each other. 

Groundhog Day

Groundhog hibernation gave rise to the famous U.S. tradition Groundhog Day, which is held annually on the second of February. Tradition dictates that there will be six more weeks of winter only if a groundhog sees its shadow that day. Such prophecy seems a sure bet across most of the North American range of the groundhog. 

Groundhog coming out of hibernation

Breeding

Mating season begins in early March, perfect timing when food becomes more available, and there is just enough time to start packing on the body fat they will need for the winter ahead. Females welcome a litter of maybe half a dozen newborns who remain for several months with their mother. Groundhogs appear to live in solitary, except when four to six young ones are born in the spring. 

For them, pregnancy goes by quickly. Groundhog mating season is in early spring, and mother groundhogs usually give birth to a litter of four to six blind, hairless babies after only a month-long pregnancy. young groundhogs are called pups or chucklings. In the fall, groundhog families disperse, and the young reach sexual maturity by two years. They usually survive two to three years in the wild but when held in captivity they can live up to fourteen years. 

Evidence suggests that male groundhogs wake up early to prepare for the mating season after approximately three months of hibernation. They leave their burrows as early as February to find out where females are hibernating. And, they go back to sleep for another month or so until it’s time to mate. 

Mother groundhog and babies

Hibernation

Groundhogs are one of the very few hibernators. It folds into what seems to be a big lifeless ball. According to the NWF, its body temperature will drop from about 99 degrees Fahrenheit to as low as 37 F. Its heart rate slows from 80 beats per minute to as low as five. its breathing slows from 16 breaths per minute to as low as 2.

Groundhogs are true hibernators. This is the part of their actions that has contributed to the tradition of North American Groundhog Day. Groundhogs typically emerge from their winter burrows in February after losing up to half their weight while hibernating. There is no theoretical explanation for shadow-observing lore. 

In fact, it was introduced from a German tradition focused on the prediction of the behavior of the European badger-a completely unrelated carnivorous small mammal-as opposed to a rodent. It also burrows and undergoes a less extreme form of hibernation.

Classification

Groundhogs Are big squirrels that are capable of weighing up to 15 pounds. They belong to the squirrel family and a group that also includes chipmunks and prairie dogs within the taxonomic tribe of marmots or ground squirrels. Groundhogs are, like their relatives, strong diggers that dig deep underground burrows. 

Enemies

Groundhogs do not have many predators, apart from coyotes, foxes, domestic dogs, and, of course, humans, due to their comparatively large adult size and burrowing, not to mention climbing and swimming abilities. However, raptors such as hawks, owls, and eagles often prey on baby groundhogs.

Habits

Groundhogs can climb trees and are also capable swimmers, but they are typically seen on the ground. Such rodents inhabit areas such as fields, paths, or streams where the forest meets open spaces. Grass and plants are eaten by them, as well as berries and tree bark. Groundhogs are a gardener’s bane for many reasons. During the summer and fall seasons, they will decimate a plot by voraciously eating.  

Groundhog climbing a tree

Groundhogs in the food chain are essential intermediaries. They consume a variety of plants and vegetables but they may also consume items such as grubs, other insects, and snails. It is also suspected that they consume other small animals, such as baby birds. 

Groundhogs are known to burrow along fences and roadsides, in fields and treetop bases, leaving soil mounds at the dig site. They usually feed in early mornings and sunbathe when it is the hottest. They are strict herbivores. They love to keep their options open, such as soybeans, rice, peas, carrots, alfalfa, grass, and consume a lot of vegetables.   

Facts

  1. The popular name woodchuck actually has little to do with wood, and comes from the Native American names for them; wuchak, wejack, and probably otchek, which are names for fishers. Groundhogs are also known as whistle-pigs. 
  2. The name whistle-pig, which is most common in Appalachia, originates from the habit of groundhogs to make a high-pitched whistling sound, usually when they feel threatened, as a warning to other groundhogs. The pig is close to how we refer to the rodent-cousin of Woodchucks, the guinea pig.
  3. Groundhogs have dense hair, colored in different shades of brown. They’re darker on their knees, and their underparts are buff, melanistic and albino groundhogs are also seen occasionally.
  4. Groundhogs love vegetables. They eat the grasses, other green plants,  fruits, the bark, and the trees’ buds. In summer and early fall, they eat heavily, storing enormous fat for their winter hibernation. During the warm season, a groundhog can pack in more than a pound of vegetation in one sitting, according to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). This is equivalent to scarfing down a 15-pound steak by a 150-pound guy. 
  5. Many species, such as wolves, coyotes, dogs, foxes, bobcats, lynxes, and black bears and even snakes will are prey on groundhogs. 

Why should you worry about Groundhogs?

Groundhogs are among very few animals that undergo true hibernation; this begins typically near the end of October and lasts until late February. Groundhogs are considered a nuisance pest because of their burrowing habits that damage home gardens, farms, orchards, and field crops. They have been known to damage construction foundations while digging. They are also responsible for other forms of damage such as the damage woodchucks cause to plants. They weaken sheds, foundations, driveways, and walls by digging below them. They can injure a dog. You can twist your ankle if you step on a hole dug by a groundhog. They are also known to chew electrical wiring and other underground cables.
Groundhogs rarely come into contact with humans and thus pose no threat to public health. However, they carry fleas and ticks. While rare, ground hogs can carry rabies.

Detect Invasion

Check for the following indicators for a potential groundhog attack. 

  • A 10-12 inch deep burrow in the ground with mounds of soil outside it 
  • Half bitten tomatoes
  • Your carrots’ feathery tops have been mowed down. 

Unlike other animals, groundhogs will not eat your garden at night. They prefer having their feast in the early morning and early evening. They eat a large range of vegetables from the garden. They’re able to climb trees, so even the fruit is not protected. Groundhogs often den in crawl spaces, so it is necessary to block all such ways like broken vent covers or foundation holes. Homeowners should cement all the openings, caulk all, fix any loose siding, and add a mesh cover over chimneys and other exposed openings. You can also choose to contact a licensed pest control professional if an infestation is suspected. 

To make your land, less welcoming to groundhogs, deprive them of areas with tall grass, tall weeds such as Japanese knotweed, overgrown shrubs, and brush piles. For groundhogs, these can only act as hideouts. It is still better to clear them our completely. Groundhogs eat dandelions and clover, so by removing them, you can minimize the threat of any unwelcome guest. 

It is also recommended to fill any holes with stones unless you plan a  welcome party for a groundhog. Remove any tree stumps because groundhogs are rodents (rodents need a source of wood to grind their continually growing incisor teeth on).  

Scare them away

The idea here is to scare groundhogs away by  Foul tastes, Foul Smell, and water. Though in my real life experience as a professional trapper, tactics such as these rarely if ever work. The best results occur when these are very, very small areas. Otherwise the animals will ignore or just move over a bit. But it is not practical or even possible to protect a large enough area to be effective.

  • Epsom salts can be sprayed on the leaves and fruits of garden plants. They leave a strong foul taste (not for you), making the plants inedible for groundhogs. Epsom salts also allow individual plants to grow better.  
  • A stinky barrier can be created by ammonia-soaked rags making the ground unwelcoming for groundhogs. For more options, you can always visit the farmer’s supply store. This is also a INCREDIBLY ineffective method to remove any animal. It is the internets favorite solution but never employed by professionals.
  • You can also buy taste and smell repellents. Commercial repellents come in granular and liquid form, but when it rains, they must also be reapplied.  Some also have success with kitty litter.  Because of the urine smell, it produces (cats being predators),  Just like ammonia, most if not all of these products are a waste of money. Most repellents are either over-priced mothballs or hot pepper of some sort.

Carefully read the instructions since one product may be very different from another. Granular repellents are strong odor based products. Spill them right into woodchuck burrows. They claim scare the groundhogs away with their unpleasant smell…but no, it won’t.

Row Covers and Fencing

Applying floating row covers on top of your crops has the added advantage of excluding insect pests. chicken-wire fences offer a solution that is more permanent. Keep two variables in mind; 

  • Groundhogs will climb over the fences 
  • Groundhogs can also dig their way under the fence. So make sure the fence is deeply rooted in soil.

Make the fences 3 to 4 feet high to counter this. Leave the top foot of chicken wire unattached to the posts. The University of Missouri Advises the following on  foiling tunneling attempts: 

“At a 90-degree angle, 1 foot below the soil, the buried section of the fence should be bent with the bottom of the fence pointing away from the yard.’’

Live Traps

Various types of traps can be used to capture groundhogs, such as rabbit control, vole control, etc. People prefer Live traps as they capture the intruder alive, making live traps more humane. Live-trapping has a bonus of being permanent, which does not require the pests needing to be killed. The key is to capture them alive and relocate groundhogs at least 5 miles away.

It however has three disadvantages: 

  • In some states, relocation is illegal. 
  • It can be troublesome to find an appropriate relocation destination. One solution to this is to find an animal-loving landowner who wouldn’t mind a groundhog on his land.
  • Relocation is also not entirely humane. Many relocated animals struggle to adapt and end up dying. This is something that I emphasize in many of my videos. Most people do not understand the negative dynamics of relocation. If can mean a horrible death for an animal trying to fit into a new environment already occupied by others.

The best time for trapping groundhogs Is in late winter / early spring. The groundhogs alive in early spring will be adults in late springs and will give birth to more groundhogs. In March, catching one groundhog could mean eliminating five in June. There are also tactical benefits to early trapping since the landscape is barren: 

  • Locating burrows is easier. 
  • Groundhogs would be far more desperate for some food.

How to trap [Professional Secret]

Trapping groundhogs in summer can be tough, especially when groundhogs can afford to be pickier about bait.

The biggest mistake of greenhorn trappers are using a trap with a negative scent. When setting a trap, be sure to use gloves, especially if you are a smoker.

Others, will use traps that they have previously used to catch other animals such as raccoons or opossums. Many groundhogs WILL NOT go into a trap that smells like raccoons or opossums.

The “Secret” is to wash the trap in apple juice. You can pour apple juice over it but easier and more effective, take a couple apples and rub them all over the trap like you would a cheese grater. Pay special attention to the bottom of the trap and especially the tray.

It is also critical to make sure the trap is on stable ground. Many animals will not go into a wobbly trap. You can do this by putting the trap on a piece of plywood or twisting it a bit into the ground. You can either connect it to the board with screws and wire or place a heavy object like a large brick on top.

Place your live trap just outside of the burrow, 5 to 10 feet away at most. Some people will put out guide logs between the burrow and the trap on either side of the path can allow the groundhog to funnel in; but in my experience this is not necessary.

PLEASE DO THIS IF TRAPPING!!!

If you are going to trap groundhogs, please do it humanely. This means set the trap in shade. Many groundhogs will be out in the open with little to no shade available. When there is not shade available, place a sheet or anything else over the trap.

I groundhog sitting out in direct summer heat can suffer and die within a couple hours.

The other major thing is to check the trap at least twice a day. Never let a trapped animal sit in a trap for more that 24 hours.

DO NOT DO THIS!!!

A common mistake is using peanut butter as bait. Yes, peanut butter will catch groundhogs but there is a high likelihood it will catch a squirrel before it catches a groundhog. Stick with apples, oranges and carrots and you will increase the chance of catching a groundhog and decrease the chance of catching a squirrel.

If you do not catch the groundhog on day 1, be sure to close the trap at night. An open trap at night has a high probability of catching nighttime critters such as opossums or raccoons. Just close the trap before dark and open the trap first thing in the morning.

What Kind Of Trap To Use

It is very important to use the right trap. Generally, you can use a raccoon or cat size live trap. Most people will buy a “Havahart trap”. While a Havahart will most likely work, they are used by very, very few professionals. Havahart traps are flimsy and not a good match for something as powerful as a groundhog.

Tomahawk Live Traps are trusted by professionals all over the country. I personally recommend the one below:

Tomahawk groundhog trap
Bu it herehttps://amzn.to/316SxFB

Conclusion

Most people are not just content with groundhogs on their property, they actually enjoy their presence! If you have a woodchuck on your property, consider if allowing it to stay is an option. If not, you can humanely have it removed.

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Dusty Showers has been in the urban nuisance wildlife and pest control field since 1993. Taught by Garon Fyffe, a pioneer in humane nuisance wildlife management, Dusty has a passion for finding humane solutions to human & wildlife conflicts. Dusty was the only individual invited by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission in the lat 1990's to help write legislation for legal protection of Florida bats. With an instinct for solving wildlife, Dusty found pest control to be an easy "add-on interest". Dusty started his first business "Animal Instincts Wildlife & Pest Management" in the Tampa Bay, Florida area in 1995. Eventually selling Animal Instincts in 2002, Dusty went on to start Creepy Creatures Termite and Pest Control in 2009, which he still owns and operates today in Palm Harbor, Florida.

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