Sometimes colloquially called “groundhog” or “whistlepig,” the woodchuck receives its common name from a Cree Indian word, wuchak, used to identify several different animals of similar size and appearance and which denotes nothing about the woodchuck’s habits or habitat. Not until Europeans colonized North America did the woodchuck receive the honor of becoming the harbinger of spring. February 2, or Groundhog Day, is the day on which the woodchuck is supposed to wake up from hibernation and emerge from its burrow to determine if winter has ended or will continue for several more weeks.
- Eats gardens including vegetables and flowers
- Digs holes, not limited to under houses crawlspaces and buildings
History and Status
Although woodchucks are native to North Carolina, they have expanded their range in recent years. The woodchuck is classified as a nongame animal for which there is no closed hunting season or bag limit. It is hunted primarily for sport and to a lesser extent for food and fur. Though no data have been collected on woodchuck populations in North Carolina, populations appear to be either increasing or stable. Woodchucks have adapted well to human activities such as agriculture and urban development and are usually considered a pest species. Woodchuck burrows and dens provide homes for other wildlife species that use subterranean den sites.
Woodchucks are large, heavy-bodied rodents attaining weights of 5 to 12 pounds and can be up to 2 feet long. They are covered with coarse hair ranging in color from brown to
reddish yellow, usually tipped with silver. Their feet have five claw-bearing digits with thick, slightly curved claws. The head is short and broad. The legs are short and thickset. The tail is densely haired, slightly flattened and one-fifth to one-third of the animal’s total length. The ears are short, broad, rounded and well haired. The eyes are circular and small.
Habitat and Habits
Woodchucks inhabit a varietyof habitats such as pastures, brushy woodlots, open woods and areas along stream banks. Their primary requirement is an area where their burrows can be constructed without being flooded or inundated with groundwater. They are diurnal animals, most active during the early morning and late afternoon hours. Woodchucks are herbivorous and prefer the more tender parts of new growth from a variety of wild and cultivated plants. They hibernate during the winter from November until February. Mating occurs in March or April, and four to six young are produced after a 31- to 32-day gestation period. The young are born blind, helpless, toothless and almost naked. Young woodchucks disperse from the natal area after they are three months old.
Range and Distribution
Woodchucks are distributed from eastern Alaska across the southern half of Canada to the Atlantic Ocean and south in the eastern half of the United States to Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. East of the Appalachian Mountains, North Carolina is the southernmost part of the woodchuck’s range. The woodchuck
was historically confined to the Mountains of western North Carolina but has recently expanded its range into the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions.
Unless you live and stay in the southern half of North Carolina from Mecklenburg County east, you have certainly seen woodchucks by the roadside in spring or early summer. Their
habit of feeding on roadside vegetation causes many woodchucks to be killed by cars. Other than a few predators such as hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes, the major causes of mortality for woodchucks are vehicles on highways and hunters in pastures. Woodchuck hunting provides a service to the landowner whose crops suffer depredation from the rodent’s feeding habits or whose livestock have been lamed by stepping into a woodchuck burrow. This sport also provides the opportunity for someone skilled with a rifle to practice this skill during a time of year when hunting seasons for game animals are closed. Even with increased numbers of highways and woodchuck hunters, this species continues to expand its range in North Carolina.
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