Ground Hog Facts: History, Habitats and Habits

An introduction to the ground hog, learn more ground hog facts including the history of the ground hog, food sources, habits and habitats of the ground hog.
By David Petersen
May/June 1988

The ground hog (in this case, a hoary marmot) may not chuck much wood, but it can scarf down a tenth of its weight in greens each day.
PHOTO: ALAN CAREY
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The ground hog (in this case, a hoary marmot) may not chuck much wood, but it can scarf down a tenth of its weight in greens each day. Learn more ground hog facts, including history of the ground hog, food sources, habits and habitats of the ground hog. 

Ground Hog Facts: History, Habitats and Habits

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Beats me. But that old conundrum does make one wonder about the origins of the name woodchuck. And what of the big rodent's other titles—such as ground hog and whistle-pig and, in the Western mountains, rockchuck and whistler?

No matter their local nicknames, both the woodchuck and its Western cousins technically are marmots, members of the genus Marmota (from the Latin for "mountain rat"). And all marmots—there are three major species in North America, including the woodchuck—belong to the same family as the squirrels. That family is Sciuridae (from the Greek, meaning "creatures that sit in the shadow of their tails").

But back to the origins of the name woodchuck. Although there are other explanations, the currently popular theory traces back to the Choctaw Indian word shukha, meaning hog. With the arrival of Europeans in North America, shukha soon enough was Anglicized to "chuck" and eventually merged with a word describing the place the little Indian hog was found—"woods." Woodchuck, then, can be taken to mean woods hog and, thus, has not a splinter of connection to chucking wood.

Then there's that other name, ground hog—and the day connected with the moniker.

Folk legend has it, you'll recall, that each February 2, this Rip Van Winkle of the mammal world rouses from his winter hibernation, emerges from his burrow and checks the weather, especially the presence or absence of sunshine. If the sun is shining and he sees his own plump shadow, that's bad, and means winter will last another six weeks; if no shadow shows, that's good, indicating spring is near at hand.

To understand the concept of ground-hog-as-meteorologist and how such an odd notion became elevated to the status of an annually observed folk tradition, it helps to know something of the nature of the beast.

The ground hog's species name is Marmota monax, the latter being a Lenape Indian word meaning "digger." Unlike so many other wild creatures of eastern North America, the ground hog did not suffer from the clearing of the forests as the pioneers and subsequent settlers made room for human enterprise, but indeed benefitted from the creation of manmade pastures and fields.

While no one knows how many ground hogs may have occupied North America in pre-Columbian times, it's certain they were not nearly so plentiful then as now. It's been estimated that the marmot genus today may total a half-billion in North America.

Your basic ground hog is reddish brown in color with white-tipped guard hairs and dark brown or black feet. All-black (melanistic) individuals sometimes occur, as do albinos. True to its name, the animal is porcine in physique, weighing on the average around 10 pounds (the record, reported by photographer-naturalist Leonard Lee Rue III, was a Pennsylvania behemoth of 30 pounds). Body length is a little over two feet, including a short tail.

Notwithstanding its unathletic build, the woodchuck can run at a respectable speed and, though rarely seen doing so, is capable of both climbing trees and swimming. One of the most distinctive identifying characteristics of the woodchuck is its high-pitched trilling call, or whistle, whence derives its nickname whistle-pig.

The ground hog eats about a tenth of its weight in vegetation per day. Grasses and clover are favored, but the 'chuck will scarf down just about anything green, including, when available, garden, field and orchard crops.

Ground hogs and marmots, like all rodents, are toothed with outsize incisors that grow continuously except during hibernation. If the 'chuck doesn't use its incisors regularly to keep them worn down, or if the top and bottom teeth become misaligned so that they fail to contact when chewing, they can enlarge to the extent that the animal can no longer eat. Or the top teeth can curve back and up, eventually growing through the roof of the mouth and into the brain.

Each ground hog digs its own extensive tunnel system having at least two entrances, one made prominent by its mound of excavated earth, the others hidden. The burrow can contain sleeping, nursery and even latrine chambers and is just large enough for the animal to squeeze into. Rarely will a ground hog tunnel exceed four feet in depth (though deeper excavations do occur), but it can be as much as 50 feet long. The animal digs with its forepaws, then heaves the loosened earth up and out of the burrow with paws, head and nose. To prevent dirt from entering its auricular (ear) canals while digging, nature has equipped the 'chuck with muscles to tightly close its ear openings.

Ground hogs frequently vacate their previous winter's dens come spring and dig new homes. This provides an abundance of abandoned burrows as refuge for a variety of other wild creatures, including rabbits, several species of furbearers, various rodents and even game birds.

A top priority for a male ground hog just emerged from hibernation in early spring is the search for a mate. She's usually neither hard to find nor coy, and the male moves right in and makes himself at home in her home, if only for the nonce.

With mating normally taking place in March and gestation requiring a month, spring's new crop of whistle-pigs—usually four or five to the litter—is born during April. The young grow rapidly and are ready to move into their own digs by July or August, though they rarely relocate far from where they were born.

Woodchucks, especially the young, are playful by nature and have been observed enjoying their own version of sumo wrestling, wherein two opponents grapple atop a burrow mound until one throws the other into the tunnel opening. After a few moments of repose, the vanquished contestant pops up for another go-round. (Similarly, Western marmots are often seen "boxing.")

Occasionally, the woodchuck's adeptness at reproduction combines with a dearth of natural predators, causing local populations to grow out of control. When that happens, the animals can become pests, causing damage to gardens, field crops, orchards and pastures. In time, a natural increase in predators (red foxes are among the most effective) would bring the 'chuck population back into balance with the environment. But no one wants to wait on nature these days, so excess woodchucks are generally shot, trapped or poisoned.

Although "yellow-belly" sounds like what the Duke might have called the villain in an old gun-and-gallop Hick, the name in fact is intended to describe the feature that most readily distinguishes Marmota flaviventris (literally, "yellow of the belly") from the other two primary species of the marmot family. Actually, the animal's underbelly is burnt orange rather than yellow, but the name-makers must have decided that "burnt-orange-belly" lacked sufficient melodic cadence.

Here in the Colorado Rockies we have no ground hogs, which makes Ground-hog Day something of an empty occasion. But the local yellow-bellied marmots perform an annual rite of spring all their own. Down the valley a ways in a roadside pasture stands a long-abandoned hay barn. When the snow begins to fall heavy and wet instead of powdery and dry, and I start seeing marmots, still dressed in their rich winter coats of auburn (later to fade to frosted tawny), scurrying from their hibernation burrows beneath the barn to their sunning places atop a pile of boulders shouldering up against the road, I know that spring has finally arrived.

Some weeks later, when I begin seeing the little corpses of the year's young (as many as eight to the litter for this species) smashed on the road (a fresh victim stained the asphalt just yesterday), I wonder why this accident-prone rockchuck family doesn't relocate to a less trafficked area. Blood on the highway.

Most often, though, yellow-bellies make their homes in boulder fields remote from any roadway, preferring sizable rockslides located near green subalpine meadows at higher elevations. If there's a stream, lake or marsh nearby, all the better. Here a plenitude of food is at hand and they can hie to the shelter of their burrows among the rocks when threatened by golden eagle, bobcat or fox. And speeding cars can't touch them.

Like woodchucks, marmots will eat almost anything vegetable, from wildflowers to wild berries. But since few gardens or commercial crops are grown on rockslides or in subalpine meadows, the marmot, unlike the ground hog, hasn't developed much of a reputation as a pest.

Except to backpackers.

A few years ago I tagged along with a group of college students on a trek up to a subalpine meadow a few miles above Silverton, Colorado. It was late June and the past winter's snow was still banked deep in shaded places.

That evening around the campfire, the leader of the backpacking group advised his students to take their boots inside their tents with them when they retired for the night; marmots, he explained, have a sweet tooth for leather, especially leather impregnated with perspiration salts. But the night was clear and starry and not too cold, and some of us chose to sleep out under the big Western sky. The following morning, one fellow discovered that one of his boots, which he had placed near the foot of his sleeping bag for the night, had been dragged off and chewed beyond wearing and the other had disappeared entirely. He got to spend the remainder of the trip, including the hike back down through crotch-deep snowdrifts, in a pair of tired running shoes he'd packed along as camp loungers.

Occasionally, the yellow-belly goes for snacks even odder than sweaty hiking boots. The following item appeared in the "Bits and Pieces" column of MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 73:

"What do woodchucks chuck? Rangers at California's Sequoia National Park are doing battle with [yellow-bellied] marmots over the chubby mammals' fondness for gnawing on the rubber hoses, fan belts and electrical wiring in the engines of visitors' cars."

The hoary marmot is the northwestern-most representative of the genus, with a range extending no farther south than central Idaho, and north all the way to upper coastal Alaska. Its common name refers to the silver-gray color of its body hair, while its scientific name, Marmota caligata (literally, "booted marmot"), identifies a secondary coloration characteristic, its black feet.

While I have no personal knowledge of hoary marmots eating hikers' boots or radiator hoses, I expect they would if given the chance, and Alan Carey, a professional wildlife photographer from Montana with whom I frequently conspire, has a wonderful picture, taken recently at Glacier National Park, of a hoary marmot gnawing on the sweatband of his son's baseball cap.
Following Bergman's rule—a zoological tenet that says the farther north a species lives, the larger it will be in relation to its southern relatives—the hoary marmot, at around 20 pounds, weighs on the average a third more than the yellow-belly and twice as much as the woodchuck. Like the yellow-belly, the hoary marmot prefers to make its home in montane boulder fields adjacent to subalpine meadows. Among its principal predators are the golden eagle and the grizzly bear.

Marmots and woodchucks are true hibernators, as opposed to bears, raccoons and other winter sleepers that snooze deeply but sometimes awaken and occasionally venture out. Yellow-bellied marmots enter their leaf-lined burrows among the rocks sometime from mid-August to early October, depending on the elevation and climate where they live, and sleep until late March or early April; hoary marmots retire as early as mid-September and usually emerge in April; woodchucks doze from late September or early October through late February or early March.

While in hibernation, woodchucks and marmots sleep curled up with their forepaws covering their eyes, and appear to be all but dead, which they are. They eliminate no body wastes, respiration slows to one breath every few minutes, the heart beats less than half a dozen times a minute, body temperature sinks to the upper 30s (from a waking temperature in the mid-90s)—even their ever-growing incisor teeth take a vacation from elongation. Like miniature versions of winter-sleeping bears, hibernating marmots and woodchucks live by metabolizing the excess body fat they've stored during the summer months.

When spring finally arrives, woodchucks and marmots rouse slowly, taking several hours to come entirely awake. At that time they're both hungry and, as previously mentioned, lonesome. Yellow-bellied and hoary marmots are free to get right about their search for food and love, but the ground hog first must deal with his annual responsibilities as a folk hero.

The tradition of Ground-hog Day as we know it in the twentieth century evolved from an imaginative blend of medieval fact and fiction. Mostly the latter.

The tradition has its roots in Candlemas Day, an ancient Roman Catholic celebration honoring the Virgin Mary and held 40 days after Christmas—which just happens to be February 2. Candlemas Day was also the traditional time for forecasting the weather for the coming weeks and, thus, setting a date for spring planting. As the old saw says:

If Candlemas Day is fair and bright, Winter will take another fight. If Candlemas Day brings storm and rain, Winter is gone and will not come again.

Since medieval French and German folklore credited ground hogs, along with badgers and bears, with the ability to predict the weather for the weeks following their emergence from hibernation (possibly because these winter sleepers seem to "know" when to awaken), it's not surprising that the weather-forecasting tradition associated with the celebration of Candlemas Day eventually merged with the idea of ground-hog-as-meteorologist, and the tradition of Groundhog Day was born.

Does science support the tradition? In a word, no. But there's no call to disdain such a delightful folk belief simply because it lacks a scientifically established record of accuracy. One eminent wildlife authority who at least gave Ground-hog Day the benefit of scientific possibility was the famous naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, who (in the 1920s) wrote:

"This superstition ... has this much of truth for foundation: The woodchuck sometimes comes out as early as the first week in February. If at that time the sun shines brightly on the snow, it means frosty weather, and forecasts a late spring. On the other hand, no snow and low-hanging rain clouds are evidence of an open winter; and that fosters an early activity on the part of the woodchuck."

Seton concluded: "It must be obvious to the reader that I am trying hard to justify the picturesque popular notion; our lives and literature would be richer if we had more of such."

Just so.


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