Photo Credit: Alan Emerson

Groundhog/Woodchuck/Whistlepigs (marmota monax)

*Potential to carry rabies.

When rescuing small wild animals, it’s a good idea to wear gloves. Be aware, however, that gloves provide only a small amount of protection, and that most mammals can easily bite through them. Raccoons, skunks, bats and some foxes are more likely than other mammals to carry rabies, but any wild animal may carry the disease. There are a number of other serious or fatal diseases that can be transmitted to humans, so you must take care that the animal doesn’t bite you.

Physical Characteristics: Groundhogs, also called woodchucks, have short yellowish-brown to black fur. They have small ears and black eyes. They have short legs and a bushy tail; they have powerful limbs and thick claws. Groundhogs weigh around 7-14 lbs and are around 25 inches in length, including the tail. Males are typically larger than females. Groundhogs are also one of the 14 species of marmot, or ground squirrels. In fact, they are the largest members of the squirrel family. 

Lifespan: The average lifespan of a groundhog is 3 – 6 years. When nutritious food sources and excellent shelter are available they can live up to 14 years.

Habitat: They like woodland areas found along forest edges, meadows, open fields, roads, and streams. They dig burrows that can be 6 feet deep, and 20 feet wide. These underground homes can also have two to a dozen entrances and various chambers. They don’t wander far from their burrows during the day. Woodchucks are good swimmers and they are able to climb tall shrubs and trees.

Diet: Groundhogs are vegetarian. They eat grasses, other green plants, some fruits, and the bark and buds of trees. They feed heavily in summer and early fall (up to a pound of vegetation per sitting), accumulating huge fat reserves for their winter hibernation.

Family Life: Groundhogs are generally solitary animals. Woodchucks breed in late February or March and usually not until the animal is close to two years old. The gestation period is 31-32 days. Four to five young are born in April or May. A groundhog will give birth to only one litter per year. The young will start to find their own territory when they are just a few months old.

Predators: Groundhogs do not have the ability to run fast, but they will defend themselves when threatened without a way to escape. Predators include coyotes, foxes, large birds of prey and snakes.
Other Significant Threats: Dogs and humans.
Special Considerations/Interesting Facts: Groundhogs hibernate throughout the winter in underground burrows usually dug on land with a slight slope. During hibernation their heartrate slows from approximately 80 beats per minute down to 5 beats per minute. These tidy animals build toileting facilities underground to defecate, they also are known to change out their bedding as it becomes soiled. They are diurnal with most of their activity occurring around dawn and dusk. They are verbal and make noises with their incisors as well as vocalizing short, sharp whistles to warn other groundhogs and animals about present dangers. Groundhogs whistle at potential mates.