|The groundhog (Marmota monax), also known as the woodchuck, land beaver, or whistlepig, is a rodent of the family Sciuridae, belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. Most marmots, such as yellow-bellied and hoary marmots, live in rocky and mountainous areas, but the woodchuck is a lowland creature. It is widely distributed in North America and common in the northeastern and central United States. In the west it is found only in Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, and northern Washington.
Anatomy and behavior
Groundhogs usually live from two to three years, but can live up to six years in the wild, and up to ten in captivity. Common predators for groundhogs include wolves, coyotes, bobcats, bears, large hawks, and owls. Young groundhogs are often at risk for predation by snakes, which easily enter the burrow.
Mostly herbivorous, groundhogs eat primarily wild grasses and other vegetation, and berries and agricultural crops when available. Groundhogs also eat grubs, grasshoppers, insects, snails and other small animals, but are not as omnivorous as many other sciurids.
Groundhogs are excellent burrowers, using burrows for sleeping, rearing young, and hibernating. The average groundhog has been estimated to move approximately 1 m³ (35 cubic feet), or 320 kg (700 pounds), of dirt when digging a burrow. Though groundhogs are the most solitary of the marmots, several individuals may occupy the same burrow. Groundhog burrows usually have two to five entrances, providing groundhogs their primary means of escape from predators. Burrows are particularly large, with up to 45 feet of tunnels buried up to 5 feet underground, and can pose a serious threat to agricultural and residential development by damaging farm machinery and even undermining building foundations.
Groundhogs are one of the few species that enter into true hibernation, and often build a separate "winter burrow" for this purpose. This burrow is usually in a wooded or brushy area and is dug below the frost line and remains at a stable temperature well above freezing during the winter months. In most areas, groundhogs hibernate from October to March or April, but in more temperate areas, they may hibernate as little as 3 months. To survive the winter, they are at their maximum weight shortly before entering hibernation. They emerge from hibernation with some remaining body fat to live on until the warmer spring weather produces abundant plant materials for food.
Despite their heavy-bodied appearance, groundhogs are accomplished swimmers and climbers, and climb trees to escape predators or survey their surroundings. Yet they prefer to retreat to their burrows when threatened; if the burrow is invaded, the groundhog tenaciously defends itself with its two large incisors and front claws. Groundhogs are generally agonistic and territorial among their own species, and may skirmish to establish dominance.
Outside their burrow, individuals are alert when not actively feeding. It is common to see one or more nearly-motionless individuals standing erect on their hind feet watching for danger. When alarmed, they use a high-pitched whistle to warn the rest of the colony.
Usually groundhogs breed in their second year, but a small proportion may breed in their first. The breeding season extends from early March to mid- or late April, after hibernation. A mated pair remains in the same den throughout the 28-32 day gestation period. As birth of the young approaches in April or May, the male leaves the den. One litter is produced annually, usually containing 2-6 blind, hairless and helpless young. Young groundhogs are weaned and ready to seek their own dens at five to six weeks of age.
The groundhog prefers open country and the edges of woodland, and it is rarely far from a burrow entrance. Since the clearing of forests provided it with much more suitable habitat, the groundhog population is probably higher now than it was before the arrival of European settlers in North America. Groundhogs are often hunted for sport, which tends to control their numbers. However, their ability to reproduce quickly has tended to mitigate the depopulating effects of sport hunting. As a consequence, the groundhog is a familiar animal to many people in the United States and Canada.
Groundhogs raised in captivity can be socialized relatively easily; however, their aggressive nature can pose problems. Doug Schwartz, a zookeeper and groundhog trainer at the Staten Island Zoo, has been quoted as saying "They’re known for their aggression, so you’re starting from a hard place. Their natural impulse is to kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly."
In Disney's fictional universe, The Junior Woodchucks are the Boy Scouts of America child organization.
The etymology of the name woodchuck is unrelated to wood. It stems from an Algonquian name for the animal (possibly Narragansett), wuchak. The apparent relationship between the two words has led to the common tongue twister: "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? — A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood". Other response lines can be used, including:
1. "As much wood as a woodchuck would if a woodchuck could chuck wood."
2. "A woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood."
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