Cold weather inspiring you to hibernate? Ready for spring to come soon, preferably tomorrow? If you believe in superstition, Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog from the town of Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania, has seen his shadow and revealed that we’re getting six more week of winter.
But what’s the animal behind this weather-predicting phenomenon? Groundhogs, known in Massachusetts as woodchucks (Marmota monax), are medium-sized, chunky, ground-dwelling mammals. They are often called whistle-pigs, but are not in the pig family at all. Woodchucks are burrowing members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae), which includes tree squirrels, flying squirrels and chipmunks. In the western United States, there are five related species called “marmots.”
Male woodchucks are larger than females, but otherwise the sexes look similar. Adults measure 20-27.5 inches in total length, with the tail averaging 4-7 inches. Adult weight will vary widely through the year, from an average of 7 pounds in the early spring to an average of 10.5 pounds in the fall. This is because they are deep hibernators and their weight will differ substantially between den entry and emergence.
The woodchuck has rather coarse, reddish-brown fur grizzled with guard hairs that are gray with yellow tips; brown or black tail, legs, and feet; and a black face. Woodchucks have short powerful legs and short ears. Their incisor teeth grow continually and must be worn down when feeding or else the tooth will grow to a length that injures or impairs the animal.
Woodchucks are common and abundant in Massachusetts. They are found everywhere in the state except on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. They can often be mistaken for beavers due to their similar appearance, but lack the distinct paddle-shaped tail. Woodchucks are mainly herbivores and can also climb trees.
Woodchuck damage to home vegetable or flower gardens is often difficult to control. Homeowners need to keep in mind that, when populations are high and food sources are abundant, new woodchucks will quickly replace those that have been eliminated. To avoid or reduce damage and make your property less attractive to woodchucks, consider fencing them out of your property, using fumigants or repellants, or consider hunting or trapping them. For more information, read more at http://www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dfw/fish-wildlife-plants/mammals/preventing-damage-woodchucks.html.
While Massachusetts woodchucks may not be able to predict the seasons, they are an important part of our natural landscape and ecosystem.