Woodchucks, surprisingly, are the largest animal within the squirrel family and can be found throughout different areas of North America. But you may be wondering, how did these animals get their name, and do they actually chuck wood?
Woodchucks don’t actually chuck wood. Their name originates from the original words used to describe them by the Native Americans. When English settlers arrived, they used familiar sounds from their own language to come up with the word “woodchuck” that sounded similar to the native words used to describe the animals.
In this article, we’ll be going in-depth on if woodchucks are really capable of chucking wood, more about the origins of the name, and if a woodchuck could really chuck wood, how much could a woodchuck chuck? LOL.
If you’re interested in learning more about these topics, keep on reading!
Where Did the Name Come From?
OK, so, woodchucks don’t actually chuck wood. If that’s the case, then where did the name come from?
It actually dates back to how the Native Americans referred to these animals.
There were originally multiple different names used to describe woodchucks. In Cree, woodchucks were called “otchek.” In Ojibwe, they were referred to as “otchig,” and in Algonquian they were called “wuchak.”
When English settlers first arrived, they used these native words and based them off familiar-sounding words from their own language, hence how the word woodchuck was born. The name comes from hearing how the native people described these animals, not due to the fact that woodchucks are capable of chucking wood.
Similar to ways that the Native Americans had multiple names of these animals, it’s the same nowadays. Woodchucks are also commonly referred to as groundhogs, whistle pigs, and even land beavers. While there have been and still are many names to define these creatures, the scientific name for woodchucks is Marmota monax.
It’s interesting how we, as a human species, can have different names with the same meanings for the same creature across many different languages. For woodchucks, it looks like the perfect storm happened to cause one of the most fun tongue twisters of all time.
If a Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood, How Much Wood Could It Chuck?
Although woodchucks don’t actually chuck wood, studies have actually been done to determine what woodchucks could chuck if they actually chucked wood.
New York Fish and Wildlife technician, Richard Thomas, devised a study to find out exactly that, by using how woodchucks build their burrows as a proxy for wood. When woodchucks are in the process of creating their vast underground tunnels, they are constantly moving and shoveling dirt out of the way.
So to determine exactly how much wood a woodchuck could chuck, Thomas used the amount of dirt that is shifted and moved to create these vast burrows as a starting point, and calculated that woodchuck burrows are approximately 35 square feet.
Thomas then multiplied the burrow square footage by the approximate weight of the soil, which was about 20 pounds per square foot, to determine that woodchucks chucked about 700 pounds of soil when creating their burrows.
So if a woodchuck really could chuck wood, it would be capable of chucking 700 pounds of wood. We have Richard Thomas to thank for this study, and while woodchucks may not chuck wood, 700 pounds of chucked soil is still pretty impressive.
Where Did the Phrase Come From?
We’ve all heard the famous American tongue twister, “How much could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” But where do its origins lie?
The origins of this phrase come from a 1902 song labeled “The Woodchuck Song?” written by Robert Hobart Davis, which debuted in a musical called “The Runaways.” In this video here, you can hear an early recording of this song (not by Robert Davis, though), which has clearly stood the test of time.
Besides being catchy songs, tongue twisters like these also aid those who are learning a new language to become fluent in their pronunciations.
Tongue twisters are also helpful for any type of performer, as it allows them to work on their pronunciation and enunciation in order for them to deliver and be understood in front of a crowd.
It’s interesting to see that although woodchucks don’t actually chuck wood, the cultural impact this question has had on our culture is obviously significant. From nursery rhymes to funny tongue twisters to actual scientific studies, woodchucks and their name have really gained a lot of conversation and attention from all different directions.
What Does a Woodchuck Actually Do?
We’ve gone over exactly what woodchucks don’t do, but what are woodchucks actually capable of? Below we’ll explore some activities you can find woodchucks doing that don’t include wood.
For starters, despite their structure, woodchucks are quite fast, and can generally evade slower predators. Generally, when woodchucks / groundhogs sesnse a predator, they flee.
To avoid danger, you may find a woodchuck up in a tree or out for a swim. They are surprisingly agile creatures and know how to avoid predators.
But for larger predators such as foxes, coyotes, domestic dogs, and raptors, woodchucks are seen as a great food source.
Most of the time, though, woodchucks are spending a great deal of time in their burrows. Woodchucks are very antisocial animals and don’t wander out of their underground confines too often.
It’s also very unlikely to see woodchucks in the winter and spring months, as they are hibernating during this time. Woodchucks will stay in their burrows until it warms up. At the coldest times during their hibernation, the heart of the woodchuck is actually the warmest part of their body!
Once they exit their burrows after hibernation has ended, they’ll begin mating.
Woodchucks also have a diet that mainly consists of vegetation and fruit. Occasionally they’ll eat large insects, but usually, you’ll find these creatures chowing down on a large array of fruit, flowers, and bark.
Even though woodchucks spend most of their time underground and out of the way, for many people, woodchucks can be seen as a nuisance, especially for those who are gardeners and farmers.
The burrows that woodchucks build can cause a lot of problems, and can even cause injuries to others, as well as damage to equipment damage that’s used on agricultural land.
But most famously, woodchucks (groundhogs) gain lots of attention every February 2nd, due to the legend that is Groundhog Day. If this furry creature sees its own shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. But if there is no shadow, that means spring is just around the corner.
Groundhog day has become a unique tradition that has really stood the test of time and showcases how much the woodchuck is a part of some of the most classic American folklore and tradition. From classic nursery rhymes to yearly traditions, the woodchuck has really made an impact in a lot of different ways, even if they don’t chuck wood.
Wrapping Things Up
So, no. Woodchucks DON’T actually chuck wood, how disappointing. However, at least we got to the bottom of things, right?
The name woodchuck was given by English settlers. When they heard the Native Americans refer to the creature as a “wuchak,” they used similar sounding words in their language to describe the creature, and therefore the woodchuck was born.
From being antisocial creatures in their burrows to being the star attraction on Groundhog Day, woodchucks may never chuck wood, but they have made a lasting impact through different mediums that will definitely stand the test of time.
KRAMER, D. L., & BONENFANT, M. (1997). Direction of predator approach and the decision to flee to a refuge. Animal Behaviour, 54(2), 289-295.
Bonenfant, M., & Kramer, D. L. (1996). The influence of distance to burrow on flight initiation distance in the woodchuck, Marmota monax. Behavioral Ecology, 7(3), 299-303.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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