Many of the brown, rodent-like animals that are commonly found in North America may seem the same – beavers, groundhogs, and prairie dogs all exhibit similar behavior. You might hear someone call one of these animals a “woodchuck” or a “whistle-pig.” Are they all one species?
Groundhogs are also known as “woodchucks,” where the name is thought to be derived from the phrases that Native Americans had for woodchucks by the original settlers that came to America. Groundhogs and woodchucks are one and the same.
The rest of this article will delve further into the family and origin of the groundhog, how it got its name, and why groundhogs are touted as being able to determine early summer or long winter in early February. It will also clarify the differences between a variety of other rodent-family species that readers may also mix up with groundhogs.
How Did the Groundhog/Woodchuck Get Its Name?
The name “groundhog” is one of many names used to describe the large rodent that lives in wooded areas around North America. This name was thought to originally be spaced into two words (groundhog) since it roots through the ground, and “hog” was used not to mean swine, but rather just “animal.”
The name “woodchuck” comes mostly from the Native American word “Wuchak,” which means, roughly, “digger.” The word developed into the name as we know it, and the names are used interchangeably, even in scientific reports on the groundhog/woodchuck. There are other Native American words that sound similar to “wuchak,” and it’s possible that “woodchuck” is a combination of all of them.
Most people assume, perhaps due to the common tongue-twister “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood,” or just from the name, that woodchucks chew on trees.
Since you might be wondering, NO woodchucks can’t actually chuck wood. You can read an article we wrote (yes, we really did) about that here.
The Many Names of the Groundhog
Groundhogs are not one-nomer animals- depending on where you live, you may know the large rodent-like animal as one of a few different nicknames. See below:
- Woodchuck: used pretty universally, and is interchangeable with groundhog- unless it’s Groundhog Day, of course.
- Whistle-Pig: Used in the Appalachian region. The name comes from the whistling sound that groundhogs sometimes make, usually when they’re scared or angry. The “pig” part refers to the perhaps similar-looking cousin of the groundhog, the Guinea pig.
- Thickwood badger: While this name isn’t quite as popular, due to the fact that groundhogs are not really badgers, “thickwood badger” is used in the Western part of the country to distinguish groundhogs from prairie dogs.
- Canada Marmot: This one is pretty straightforward- groundhogs are both a type of marmot and live in Canada. In fact, the yellow-bellied marmot, very closely related to the North American groundhog, is what the popular ski site Whistler was named after since the marmots emit shrill whistles to communicate.
- Red monk: Some earlier texts from the first naturalists described the groundhog as a “red monk,” and the name stuck. Though it’s uncertain as to why, it could be a reflection of the groundhog’s solitary lifestyle, which mimics that of a monk.
The Origins of the Groundhog
Scientific Family and Order
The Eastern groundhog is scientifically known as the Marmota monax. The name “groundhog” is misleading since they definitely are not in the hog family. Instead, groundhogs are related to the squirrel family, known as Sciuridae, which also includes prairie dogs and chipmunks.
The classified order, which is broader than the family, is Rodentia, which, as the name suggests, includes rodents and like-rodent species. Animals in this order all share the same characteristic of large incisors and strong jaws, and there are over 2000 species that share the characteristic.
Additionally, most other species under the squirrel family are excellent diggers, and groundhogs are no exception. They use their front and back feet to dig long, complex tunnels into burrowing in, much like their prairie-dog counterparts. The tunnels will have spaces for the woodchuck to defecate, store food in, and sleep, in order to keep their homes clean.
Where They’re Found
Woodchucks are naturally found across the United States, but primarily in the Eastern and Midwestern areas, and as far south as Georgia. They also dwell in Southeastern Alaska and some parts of the lower half of Canada. While they’re not found much in the Western part of the United States, you can find the groundhog’s close cousins: the prairie dog and the alpine marmot.
Where They Live
They prefer forested areas that border open fields since they dig in open fields and often forage for food in more densely wooded areas. If you see a bumbling, dark brown rodent-like creature in a forest (in the requisite areas, of course), it’s most likely a groundhog.
Honestly, you’ll see them quite frequently while walking in a park. You’ll likely catch a glimpse of them, and then watch them scurry off once you get closer to them.
Overall, groundhogs do well in warmer climates, which is why they hibernate during winters in complex tunnel systems that are up to 6 feet deep (1.8 m) and 20 feet (6m) long. Abandoned tunnels are often used by snakes, rabbits, or owls, but are nuisances to livestock.
Aside from when mothers raise offspring, from birth to about two months of age, groundhogs are solitary animals. They interact by mating but having their own burrows. Groundhogs also move around and will create multiple tunnel systems and burrows in their lifetimes.
Groundhogs generally live off green plants and eat parts of flowers, seeds, stems and consume berries as well. They typically will scrounge for food twice a day, in the morning and evening. Though they are typically herbivores, they will sometimes eat baby birds or insects. However, they’re not picky and will devour most produce if it’s available.
Most woodchucks hibernate in the winter months (usually end of November to February), with the exception of those who live in the southern part of the state since food in the warmer climate is abundant year-round.
Before hibernation, a groundhog will eat continually to preserve fat, since they lose a large portion of their body fat while hibernating.
Groundhogs typically mate once per year and don’t stick together as a family unit. The females give birth in April or May and have a typical litter of two to six pups! Like many animals in nature, these pups over time, ween off the care of their mother.
The History of Groundhog Day
Many people only see or hear of groundhogs on the famed second day in February, where a groundhog comes out of hibernation, and people look for its shadow. As the legend goes, if the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If not, then it means there will be an early spring.
The tradition started way back in 1887, though the reason why is unclear. It could be linked to English lore that involves badgers or bears predicting the weather via shadow, and that the early colonizers could only find a groundhog to do the same.
It is known that the most famous groundhog on February 2nd is Groundhog Phil, who lives in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Though his handlers claim that Phil is the same groundhog as in 1887, groundhogs only live for 6 to 8 years.
When the groundhog comes out, he is surrounded by handlers, called his “Inner Circle,” who wear distinctive uniforms of top hats and tuxedos. They surround Phil and call out whether he has seen his shadow or not. Phil often predicts six more weeks of winter, with 100 of the calls being for winter, and 15 of the calls being for spring. Nine years are unaccounted for.
While Phil’s “Inner Circle” claims that the groundhog’s weather prediction is always right, the reviews are mixed. Typically, winter won’t last exactly six weeks longer, and “early” spring is hard to quantify. However, this doesn’t stop thousands of people from tuning in from across the country each year to watch Phil make his annual prediction.
Groundhogs as Pests
Since groundhogs are such avid diggers, they are often despised by farmers who dislike having tunnels in their fields that pose a risk to livestock and foundations of houses. Additionally, their habits of eating crops, such as alfalfa, wheat, or produce, meaning that they’re not a welcome sight on farms.
How to Keep Woodchucks Out
If your garden or home is being ravaged by woodchucks, there are a couple of ways of getting rid of them or just keeping the animals out of your property.
- Build a fence. Since groundhogs are excellent diggers and can burrow anywhere from 2-6 feet underground. Any fence you build should be at least as deep as that and point outwards under the ground. A wire mesh material should do the trick, with an angled top section (angled toward the outside) in order to deter any groundhog from climbing over as well while the top section sticks out a foot or so.
- Try using repellent granules. Groundhog repellents can do wonders, but are temperamental and can be hit or miss depending on if you use them correctly. If you go with a groundhog repellent, I recommend starting your search with these Shake Away Fox Urine Granules.
- Used kitty litter. Cats are predators of groundhogs, so the smell from dirty litter will also do the trick in scaring away a woodchuck and won’t burn a patch in your lawn. Basically, you’ll Sprinkle it near the perimeter of your garden or field.
Other Members of the Squirrel/Weasel Family
It can be hard to distinguish other species of similar build and look as the groundhog – which could be why so many people have trouble remembering that groundhogs and woodchucks are the same animal – since there are so many other distinct breeds that all appear to be similar!
Marmots are, in fact, commonly referred to as groundhogs, and technically, the terms are interchangeable, since a groundhog is a type of marmot. However, most people refer to the animals that live up in the mountains as “alpine marmots,” and those who live closer to sea level as “groundhogs.”
The alpine marmot, also known as the yellow-bellied marmot, lives in Asia, North America, and Europe, at high elevations. Aside from their preferred environment, marmots share many characteristics of groundhogs, such as their physique, hibernation habits, and shill whistling sounds.
Another difference between the two animals is their living situations – while groundhogs typically move around by themselves, marmots live in colonies of up to 20 individuals, typically with at least one male to guard the group.
Those animals are closely related to groundhogs. They’re typically smaller and quicker. They live in open prairies (hence the name) all over the United States.
Like woodchucks, they dig elaborate tunnels in order to avoid being out in the open and spend most of their time underground. Their diets mimic groundhogs’ with plants, grasses, and bugs as staples. Just like groundhogs, they’re often considered pests due to their habit of wrecking landscapes with holes and eating crops.
The size difference is the main difference between prairie dogs and groundhogs with prairie dogs being lighter and groundhogs/woodchucks, heavier.
While beavers do look similar to woodchucks, the real confusion comes from the name. Though groundhogs don’t “chuck wood” as their nickname may suggest, beavers do. With long buck teeth, they spend most of their days gnawing down trees to use for river dams or underwater lodges.
Beavers are also typically much larger than groundhogs and can weigh up to 60 pounds (27.2 kg). While they waddle like woodchucks and marmots on land, they are much more graceful in the water, where webbed feet and thick tails used as rudders are an advantage.
Like the other rodents mentioned above, beavers are mainly herbivores and subsist on bark, plants, and roots. They are found in forests, lakes, and ponds all over North America, Asia, and Europe.
Though badgers are in a different family than the woodchuck (the weasel family), they are often misconstrued as close relatives. The American badger has a squat body, with a characteristic white stripe down its triangle-shaped nose.
Another difference between the American badgers and the rest of the squirrel family is the badger’s preference for meat. Though badgers are diggers, with claws and webbed front feet, they’re looking for smaller mammals to eat rather than creating homes like groundhogs. In fact, badgers will eat a groundhog, prairie dog, or squirrel if they come across one.
Badgers live in dens, and though they don’t hibernate during the winter, they can sleep for long periods of time in cold weather. They have multiple mating partners and typically live alone.
Like woodchucks, capybaras are large rodents (the largest of them all!) and stand about four feet tall (60 cm) and closely resemble beavers, just without the webbed tail. Though it may look similar to a woodchuck, capybaras are found in South America, typically on riverbanks or swamps. They are avid swimmers and can stay underwater for up to five minutes.
Much like other large rodents, they use their long front teeth to chew plants and grasses and eat things like melons, fruits and seeded plants.
They also live in colonies – much like marmots or beavers – of up to ten individuals, with at least one male in order to protect the rest of the group. During the wet season, they often group together in order to keep watch for predators.
Wrapping It Up
Groundhogs and woodchucks are the same animal – a short-legged, brown mammal that digs complex tunnels and chows down on plants. The name “woodchuck” comes from the Native American word for “digger,” which is “wuchak.” Groundhogs go by many other names, including whistle-pig, thickwood badger, and Canada marmot.
Aside from the confusion of groundhog vs. woodchuck, there are a few other similar-looking and acting animals to groundhogs. These include prairie dogs, marmots, badgers, or even beavers.
Groundhogs are well-known for being the celebrated animal on Groundhog Day, where Phil, the woodchuck from Punxsutawney, predicts either early spring or six more weeks of winter, based on if he sees his shadow or not.
Aside from groundhog day, woodchucks are often seen as pests due to their digging habits, which can collapse buildings, and eating of gardens and farms. There are a few ways of discouraging a groundhog, from building underground wire fences to spreading used kitty litter.
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