Groundhogs are most commonly known for their ability to announce the arrival of springtime on February 2nd in Canada and the United States (and for driving off a cliff with Bill Murray). However, there is much more to know about these adorable creatures aside from their cultural stereotypes. Belonging to the rodent family Sciuridae, groundhogs are a type of ground squirrel grouped under the marmot category. A groundhog has many names, such as woodchuck, ground-pig, and whistle-pig (after their scuffling squeak toy noises). Their daily activity includes sitting up in an alert position to survey surroundings, foraging for food resources, soaking up sun in a down-alert position, and resting with their head on the ground or on their forelegs (1). The typical diet of these diurnal herbivores includes a love for dandelions, wildflowers, clovers, long grass, lettuce, nuts, and seeds (4).
In terms of territorial behaviour, groundhogs mark their habitat ranges by scenting within six meters of their burrows. They do this by first approaching and sniffing different substrates, such as fences, stumps, shrubs, and rocks. They will then gnaw on the object to coat it in their saliva, displaying a visual cue of their whereabouts through teeth marks and exercising their jaw muscles while sharpening their incisors. Lastly, groundhogs will rub their muzzles around the substance to leave their scent, all the while making rapid tail movements (3). Male groundhog territory boundaries usually stretch further than that of females, and are largest during the breeding season (4). Groundhogs are solitary mammals, keeping to themselves and living separately. However, their actions are mostly that of a complex dominance versus subordination relationship when they do interact, which will vary in intensity with the time of the year (being more aggressive during breeding season). Depending on personality rather than sex, those which are dominant freely roam over others’ territory regardless of scenting, have more wounds due to brief yet vicious fights, and show more of an agonistic air. A groundhog threatening to attack will direct its stance towards its enemy, which includes an arched back, an erect and twitching tail, prickled fur, an open mouth showing teeth, and growling. Avoidance, fleeing, submission, and an alert or nonchalant demeanor characterize subordinates (1).
When most groundhogs awake from hibernation towards the end of February, they smell the love in the air more so than the blossoms of springtime. During the months of March and April, male groundhogs will overlap their territory range with nearby females and travel quite a bit to breed with them, mating with up to five females per year. Females will give birth approximately 30 days after having mated, and will only produce one litter per year of about 2 to 9 pups. Depending on the groundhog couple’s social relation, they can be polygynous, monogamous, or polyandrous (7). Groundhogs will tend not to breed together if they are closely related, but will do so if they are the only mates they can find within their territory boundaries (7). Of the marmot group, groundhogs ‘occupy the largest geographic range’ over a variety of ecological conditions (6 p. 314).
This is Alphy, a rather red groundhog with a beautiful soul. Her den rests within a mound of sand tucked away under the lip of a hill in our backyard. With a nice cup of coffee in the morning, I would sit and watch her routine. Her first order of business would be to make sure that the sand packed around her den was clean with no growth on it and that it was sturdy enough to perch on when in surveillance mode. Then she would climb down onto our lawn and proceed to consume every dandelion, patch of wild grass, clover, and weed beginning to grow. She was quite the handy mini mower and never attempted to destroy my mother’s garden or anything personally planted on our property. She also showed no fear of us when we were in the backyard and never made any move towards us either. Then one April morning, I looked out to see two groundhogs standing off: Alphy and another named Marty. Marty swiftly chased Alphy into the woods and for a few days she was nowhere to be seen.
Upon arriving home later that week, I stumbled right into Alphy on the walkway to our house. Sitting only two feet in front of me, she was staring up at me with a mouthful of bright leaves. I greeted her with a quick ‘Hey Alphy’ and continued walking up the steps to our house, while she disappeared under our front stairs. For over a month after that sighting, things had returned to normal, as Alphy had shortly reclaimed her den in our backyard and resumed her routine as if nothing had happened. However, this tranquility did not last long. There is a bend in the road close to my house that many drivers tend to erratically race through, and one early June evening we found Alphy dead near a ditch. Even though groundhogs are considered great ‘urban-adapters’, urban expansion in the form of roads, infrastructures, parking lots, and fencing has severely impeded their territory ranges, as well as their ability to find mates and food resources (4). The survival rate is higher on average for groundhogs in urban areas than rural areas due to less predation, more anthropogenic food source availability, and smaller distances to traverse to reach burrows. Unfortunately, urban groundhogs frequently face mortality by vehicle collisions, diseases from pesticides and toxic runoff, and human interference (5). Alphy was truly the best groundhog ever, and she will be greatly missed.
Thankfully, a magnificent part of Alphy remained with us (and no, I am not referring to her wonderful spirit). A healthy litter of six pups emerged during the first week of June from where I had seen Alphy constructing a den under our front porch stairs. Groundhogs will seek out impervious surface coverage (like our cement stairs) in urban areas to create natal dens, because they create an insulating heat island effect that is beneficial for survival during hibernation (5). The plumpest youngling was deemed Chubster, moseying around in exploration with a light brown sibling that was always quick to lead called Ace. The reddest one, identical to Alphy and having a fascination for my father’s truck, was declared Chip. Chip was frequently followed by Oats, who would often curl up next to a bunny statue in our garden (perhaps it believed it to be its mother) with Smokey (the darkest of the bunch and resembling Marty the most). Finally, Apple-critter, similar in colouring to Ace, would rarely leave the natal den. Despite being orphaned, we witnessed these amazing little groundhogs cautiously approach different substances, instinctively learn the different feeding positions of standing on all fours, sitting, and sitting with their food in one paw, as well as discover various fur-grooming techniques such as licking, chewing, scratching with a hind-leg, and combing their heads with their paws. They also quickly began to burry and cover up their waste, which is a behaviour that other members of the rodent family do not possess (2).
For about week, the adorable bunch practiced grooming, play fighting, and nose to nose smelling, getting used to each others’ scents. With Chubster and Ace being slightly larger and dispersing faster to discover more territory, they were believed to be the males of the litter (2). During their second week in the wilderness, these two adventurous groundhogs ended up discovering their mother’s den in the backyard and claimed it as their own. The others tended not to venture that far from the natal den, which is typical of females (6). However, they did spend a significant amount of their time foraging and fixing up their natal den with more leaves. Watching these little groundhogs instinctively learn social patterns and survival behavior without a mother having taught it to them was an extraordinary experience. Their bravery despite their small size and having no protective parental figure to guide them was astonishing to see as well. This is why it was truly devastating to soon find our yard filled with foxes and a coyote.
Bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and hawks are the prime predators of the groundhog. For a few days, we tried our hardest to chase them away from the dens, but they were fast, stealthy, and strangely already accustomed to human activity at a very close distance to them. The foxes viewed our efforts as more of a game than a scare tactic, remaining happy and only slightly more vigilant of our presence. We called every wildlife centre in our vicinity for help with removing the groundhogs to a safer area, yet the results were all the same. Groundhogs are a protected species in Canada, so humans cannot cause them any harm and they will not be removed, as they have every right to the land. Unfortunately, foxes have the same rights and we were told that we had to let nature be nature. This horrible tragedy was, as David Suzuki would say, the nature of things. After four days straight of relentless pursuit, the predators retreated and we were left to accept what had happened. Alphy’s old den has since been vacant, with no sign of Chubster or Ace whatsoever. Our neighbours that live across our street reported that they had seen a few foxes get away with some of the young groundhogs in the front as well. It is so sickening and so unbearably sad that these poor pups hardly got to live life. Alphy’s young had so much promise, but not all was lost. Upon examining the natal den one day and deciding whether to cover it up, a small groundhog snout popped out. It was Apple-critter, the seemingly weakest of the bunch. This little buddy remains hardly visible, but upon placing a piece of lettuce outside its hole, it later disappears.
- Bronson, F.H. “Agnostic Behaviour in Woodchucks.” Animal Behaviour, vol. 12, no. 4, (1964), pp. 470-478.
- Ferron, Jean, and Jean-Pierre Ouellet. “Physical and behavioral postnatal development of woodchucks (Marmota monax).” Canadian Journal of Zoology, vol. 69, no. 4, (1991), pp. 1040-1047.
- Ferron, Jean, and Jean-Pierre Ouellet. “SCENT-MARKING BEHAVIOR BY WOODCHUCKS (MARMOTA MONAX).” Journal of Mammalogy, vol. 69, no. 2, (1988), pp. 365-368.
- Lehrer, Elizabeth W, and Robert L. Schooley. “Space use of woodchucks across an urbanization gradient within an agricultural landscape.” Journal of Mammalogy, vol. 91, no. 6, (2010), pp. 1342-1349.
- Lehrer, E.W, Schooley, R.L, and J.K. Whittington. “Survival and antipredator behavior of woodchucks (Marmota monax) along an urban–agricultural gradient.” Canadian Journal of Zoology, vol. 90, no. 1, (2012), pp. 12-21.
- Maher, Christine R. “Social Organization in Woodchucks (Marmota monax) and its Relationship to Growing Season.” Ethology, vol. 112, no. 4, (2006), pp. 313-324.
- Maher, Christine R, and Melissa Duron. “Mating System and Paternity in Woodchucks (Marmota monax).” Journal Mammalogy, vol. 91, no. 3, (2010), pp. 628-635.