A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Gayle Pille: By any name — Whistle-Pig, Land Beaver, Woodchuck, Groundhog — they are largest squirrels

It’s hard not to love a Whistle-Pig or Land Beaver – or Woodchuck or Groundhog.

Yep, they are all the same creature and that critter also happens to be our largest ground squirrel.

And you can forget the saying, “How much wood does a Woodchuck chuck,” because Woodchucks don’t chuck any wood. The etymology of the name Woodchuck actually stems from a Native American name, “Wuchak.”

At burrow’s entrance

Found throughout Kentucky, these large members of the squirrel family live very interesting lives and seldom cause us any trouble. During the summer months they prefer open, highly vegetated areas such as fields, meadows, or pastures close to a woody edge. They normally live in densities of only one or two adults per acre of suitable habitat where they feed on plantain, dandelion, clover, grasses, leaves and fruit.

They build extensive and elaborate homes or burrows – three to six-feet deep and 25 to 45-feet in length. These burrows are valuable in providing den sites for other animals as rabbits, skunks, opossums, and even raccoons.

Each burrow has several rooms or chambers with specific uses, including at least one bedroom, a nursery and bathroom. And like any respectable homebuilder, their burrows have a welcoming main entrance with a large mound of dirt around it, as well as a couple of inconspicuous escape routes. And that’s just their summer home.

In the fall, they retreat into the woods to their hibernaculum. Yes, Woodchucks are true hibernators. They seal themselves below the frost line in their woodland chambers where they curl into a ball and sleep away the winter in a comfy nest. Their heart rate slows to only four beats per minute, body temperature drops to about 40-degrees, and breathing is slowed considerably.

Woodchucks are diurnal, and are most active in the early morning and late afternoon. They are only above ground a couple of hours each day and never stray far from the safety of their burrows. When startled, a Woodchuck will often emit a loud and shrill whistle before diving for its burrow; hence the name Whistle-Pig. They are good swimmers and climbers, sometimes climbing trees to reach leaves and buds. In fact, at one local cemetery workers swore they saw a monkey in a tree. Truth be told, it was only a foraging Woodchuck.

And Groundhog Day? We have our German immigrant ancestors to thank for that tradition. In Europe, the early emergence of the badger from its den was an indicator of more winter to come. The Groundhog and its shadow was an imaginative substitute in the New World. But don’t bet the farm on Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions. Per the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he’s correct only 21% of the time.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment