Vol. 10 Issue 4, Winter 2005
By Nicole Hamilton
During winter, groundhogs, also called woodchucks, are in the midst of hibernation. Living off fat reserves they gained over the summer and fall, they are sleeping in chambers in tunnel systems running 30 feet long that they excavated just below the frost line. You may see entrances to their underground burrows on well-drained slopes, hidden in rocks, or tucked in next to tree stumps.
Prior to winter, you may have seen groundhogs out gathering grasses and other soft material. They use these to line their chambers, creating a comfortable place for their sleep. They also create a special “room,” solely for use as a bathroom. Once spring arrives, this furry friend will emerge, 40% skinnier, looking for food and a mate.
The males emerge from their burrows first and sniff nearby burrows for females. Here they mate, and by May/June, a new generation of groundhogs is born. The females care for the young, transforming the hibernation chambers into a nursery where the babies will be comfortable and safe. The mother groundhog teaches her young everything they need to know to survive, including a variety of whistles to communicate danger.
Once the young are ready to “leave home,” a gradual departure occurs. First, temporary burrows are made within about 300 feet of the mother’s burrow. She still keeps a watchful eye on them during this time, but eventually the young become more independent and move on to establish their own territory.
Groundhogs play an important role in the environment. Their abandoned burrows serve as homes to other animals like raccoons, skunks, foxes, and opossums. Their digging helps loosen the soil so water can be better absorbed by the earth. Another interesting fact is that groundhogs are the largest North American mammal in the squirrel family.
Listen to our audio podcast on groundhogs to learn more!