Woodchuck’s Guests

This is a page to accompany a discussion of these large-shouldered, burrowing rodents who are celebrated on February 2nd – and fretted over throughout the growing season by aspiring Northeastern gardeners.

While woodchucks do tend to relentlessly raid humans’ vegetable patches, they’re also well known and appreciated for other interesting characteristics. Woodchucks (who are also called Groundhogs or, to use the scientific term, Marmota monax) are almost exclusively vegetarian. Over hundreds of thousands of years, they have evolved to cope with the yearly rhythms of variable food supplies (and cold temperatures!) by developing superb capacities for hibernation. They’ve evolved behavioral and physiological adaptations that allow them to carry out this feat of ‘suspended animation.’ In late summer, and early fall, they eat voraciously and add a thick layer of insulating and energy-storing fat to their body. This accomplished, they retreat to the deep, leaf-lined chambers that they have dug and furnished during the growing season. Once there, some six feet below ground, they can drift into a deep state of unconsciousness and remain safely below the wind and snow for the next five or six months. During hibernation, their heart will beat only five or six times a minute. They’ll only breath every five minutes or so, and their body temperature will drop to an average of forty-five degrees F. (compared to their normal temperature in the mid nineties F.). In this state of profoundly slowed metabolism, this deep ‘sleep,’ they’ll endure the winter without eating! Only two other mammals in Southern New Hampshire have this remarkable ability to hibernate profoundly – the jumping mouse and the little brown bat.

Woodchucks are also outstanding contributors to the workings of the forest ecosystem. Their vigorous digging and excavating mixes the minerals and organic material in the various levels of soil. Their activities bring more oxygen into the lower layers. Moreover, the tunnels that they create (and often reuse over the course of multiple years) provide fine habitat and shelter for several dozen different kinds of animals – large and small.

To appreciate a few of the many creatures who find shelter in woodchucks’ underground tunnel systems , invite the students to color, cut out, and construct an interactive page that features some of woodchuck’s guests. As usual, the dashed lines around the different animals indicate a suggested path for trimming. The dotted lines represent a place to fold. Several of the creatures are presented in such a way that once they’re cut-out, they can be hidden under the folded tabs which bear the identifying words. Show the youngsters how this works by making a quick sample. Once the colored animals have been cut out, and the youngsters have told each other a story or two with their moveable creatures, encourage them to attach the various beings to appropriate places around the tunnels or landscape. Glue sticks work very well for this. Now they can take their project home. If they like, they can also ask fellow students, friends, and family members to guess who’s finding shelter in their woodchuck’s den. In this way, they can share with other people their new understanding of the ‘whistle pig’s’ role in his or her ecosystem – as a provider of habitat and homes for a number of other species.

Hints about placing the various ‘guests:’ North American Cottontail Rabbits do not tunnel – unlike their European, North African, and Asian relatives. Therefore, the cottontail rabbit would tend to rest in the upper level of the burrow near one of the doorways. Red fox is probably just walking by, checking into the tunnel system. She is of course a carnivore who might eat some of these other animals if they weren’t safely hidden away inside the narrow rooms of the tunnel system. Red Fox will need to do a little remodeling (definitely widening the main entrance and tunnels) if she decides to return in the spring and use parts of this den as a home for her kits.

Recommended references:

Tracking and the Art of Seeing, 2nd. ed. Rezendes, Paul. New York: Collins Reference, 1999.

ESF SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry article on woodchucks: https://www.esf.edu/aec/adks/mammals/woodchuck.htm