For a long time, I used to go to bed early. That was when my daughter was little more than a toddler. At night, she asked to be told stories about animals. Sometimes she would fall asleep before I had begun; sometimes I would find myself speaking from my own dream. But other times the stories, continued from previous nights’ accounts, would go on for an hour or more.
There were lots of stories with lots of different animals, but the ones with woodchucks were the most engaging and enduring. Our woodchucks had adventures, paddled a canoe up a river, avoiding humans and other predators as best they could, and lost and found love. They had lively times; they were thoroughly amiable creatures. But they were not much like real-life woodchucks, which are nothing like humans, can be aggressive nuisances, and are not amiable.
When Europeans first colonized North America, they had no name for woodchucks. They adopted the Algonquian name “wuchak”, and that was subsequently corrupted to “woodchuck”. Woodchucks do not chuck wood; nor do they routinely chew wood or structures. Woodchucks are also commonly called “groundhogs” and “land-beavers”.
The scientific name for woodchuck is Marmota monax. They belong to the rodent family Sciuridae—the squirrels. Other members of that family include tree, ground, and flying squirrels as well as chipmunks and prairie dogs. They are the largest of these mammals, typically as adults weighing about 10 lb., but in a particularly lush area (say near an alfalfa field), they may reach 30 lb. Their closest relative is the whistling marmot (Marmota caligata), which is often encountered by visitors to the Rocky or Sierra Nevada Mountains who, leaving a pack containing trail mix unattended, return to find it chewed open and the food missing.
Woodchucks prefer to live in open fields and woodland margins, though they’re well adapted to urban settings such as golf courses. When those Europeans first settled here, much of the land east of the Mississippi was wooded, and woodchuck populations were relatively low. As the forests were thinned and woodchuck habitat thus opened up, woodchucks thrived and have prospered in the eastern and central USA and spread northward across Canada, up into Alaska, and south to Georgia.
Mounds from burrow construction may be the first sign of the presence of woodchucks. Woodchucks are built for digging. And dig they do; their burrows are extensive and can be 5 feet deep, 150 feet long, and contain sleeping, birthing, and latrine chambers. Woodchucks are most active during the day and rarely venture more than 150 feet from their burrows to which they scurry, if possible, when threatened.
From mid to late fall until March or April, woodchucks hibernate. They are generally solitary, but when they leave the burrow in spring, males may range far and wide looking for love. Females produce one litter of four to nine kits per year after a 32-day gestation period. Woodchucks waste little time in childrearing; offspring are on their own by mid-July.
Woodchucks are primarily herbivorous, eating, in a natural setting, grasses and other plant products such as berries, nuts, and the bark of young woody plants. They will also eat insects, grubs, and other small animals. If available, they consume most vegetable and agricultural crops and will do significant damage in a flower garden too. Woodchucks may look ungainly, but they climb trees well and like fruit.
Many woodchucks fall prey to highway traffic, but there are few natural woodchuck predators. Young ones can be killed by coyotes, dogs, and some birds of prey, but adults do a pretty good job of taking care of themselves. As a result of this, their fecundity, and an abundant food supply, woodchuck populations can blossom.
Fordhook Farm, our founder’s 60 acre original test garden, is a case in point. One spring day several years ago, the farm manager and an assistant entered an old playhouse that was used as a tool shed. The floor dropped out from under them, and they were violently pitched against a wall. An earthquake had not occurred, as they at first thought; rather, the whole building, undermined by several generations of woodchucks, had dropped nearly a foot, and the tool shed canted over on its side.
When they looked, they found foundations of several other buildings had been damaged too. As the growing season progressed, some of the display gardens were torn up, and vegetable trial gardens also were ravaged. Burrows seemed to appear everywhere. A professional was thus called. He identified the epicenter of the invasion as a hillside by a freeway off-ramp adjacent to the farm. He set to work.
Throughout that summer, the professional came to the farm manager for payment with a string of woodchuck tails as evidence of his effectiveness. The farm manager told me once that he half wondered whether each time the tails were actually different; maybe they were always the same ones, but just their order on the wire had been changed. I could imagine that too: the professional sitting there humming softly late at night while he restrung the tails.
Whatever the truth of that conjecture, by October the woodchucks were gone, and the professional went his way. I like to think sometimes that maybe on foggy mornings before starting work, he joins a congress of fellow professionals at a roadside café and with raised cup of coffee he toasts Fordhook Farm and the plunder he made there. I know he knows too that on a spring day like today, the woodchucks on the hillside by the freeway off-ramp are getting restless and that they’ll be back at Fordhook Farm before long.