by Stan Tekiela
June 24, 2012
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
There are so many things to look forward to each spring such as flowers, birds, green grass, blue skies, warm scent filled breezes but for me the Woodchuck is something that really makes me smile. I mean, really, how can you not smile when you look at these fat, near-sighted, short-legged, whistle pigs.
The Woodchuck (Marmota monax) is a type of marmot in the squirrel family. Let me clarify, yes they are in the squirrel family however the squirrel family is broken into two major groups. The tree squirrels, which this critters is obviously not a member because it doesn't climb trees and the ground squirrels which as you guessed it, live on or under the ground. In fact the Woodchuck is the largest member of the squirrel family.
Measuring only 24-28 inches from tip of tail to tip of nose they sometimes appear was wide as they are long because they can be so fat. They only weight between 10-14 pounds, more at the end of summer when they are getting ready to hibernate and less in spring when they emerge from hibernation.
Speaking of hibernation, the Woodchuck is a true hibernator meaning they have to go into winter with enough body fat to last them all winter. At no time do they wake up to feed or replenish body fat, unlike the chipmunk which has a supply of food stored underground in the burrow. If they don't have enough fat to last the winter they will die in their den. Even bears, who are well known for their hibernation wake up occasionally, especially if it is a female giving birth to cubs. During hibernation the Woodchuck curls into a ball with its head between its front legs and doesn't wake. It's body temperature drops from 90 F to about 40 F. Breathing slows to one breath every 6 minutes and the heart rate decreases from 75 to 4 beats per minute.
The common name "Woodchuck" is from the Cree Indian word wuchak, which describes several small animals but apparently the name stuck for this animal. This is also the animal for which Groundhog Day was named. It is sometimes call the Whistle Pig because it gives a high-pitched whistle-like call when alarmed.
This critter is solitary for most of the year except for mating or when a mother is raising her young. In addition they are rarely far from their den entrance. When they feel threatened they will quickly run back to their den and slip away underground. It will wait at the den entrance until danger has passed before slowing coming back out.
Unlike it's common name suggests, the Woodchuck doesn't eat or throw wood. But instead it eats green plants such as dandelion. In the spring time before the grass greens up or the dandelions pop up, they sometimes will climb small trees to feed on the newly emerging leaves.
They have a large underground tunnel system, which is often used by other animal such as Eastern Cottontail Rabbits, Raccoons, Opossums and a variety of snake species. They have separate winter and summer dens. They summer dens are usually located near open grassy areas with plenty of food nearby. The winter dens are often in the woods and are more of a single entrance hole with a hibernation chamber at the end.
Females breed at one year of age. Mating takes place during March and April. They only have a 30 day gestation period before the young are born. They have about 3-6 offspring, only once per year. The young are born naked with their eyes closed and helpless. Eyes open and they start to crawl at 4 weeks. Childhood is very short for young woodchucks. They are weaned from mother's milk at 6 weeks and are out and on their own at 10 weeks of age. And you thought you had a tough childhood.
You can see these wonderful creatures along busy highways and in open fields on sunny days. I think they are marvelous and I look forward to seeing them each and every spring. Until next time...
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on Facebook.com and Twitter.com or you can contact him via his web page at www.naturesmart.com
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