Introduction to the Woodchuck (Groundhog) as a Pet
Few people have ever even considered keeping as a pet a
woodchuck, groundhog, whistle pig, land beaver, marmot, or
whatever the common name for this North American rodent in
the area in which you live. But if you live in its native
area you might wind up finding an orphan land beaver that
you'd like to raise, and if you don't live in its native
area you still might like to have a pet whistle pig because
it is an interesting, easily tamed and unusual pet. But
before you decide that a woodchuck is for you, check the
laws in your state, they are considered pests and are
illegal to keep in captivity in some states.
The scientific name of the groundhog is Marmota monax, and
it is basically a very large, short-tailed ground squirrel.
Various families of these marmots are found in the wild all
over eastern North America and along the extreme western
coast up as far as Alaska.
Groundhogs average from sixteen up to twenty-six inches
(forty to sixty-five centimeters) long, although if they
have plenty of food and few predators they can grow to
nearly thirty-six inches (ninety-two centimeters) long. The
tails are about one quarter of that length.
Woodchucks have a somewhat hunched back, unlike other
members of the squirrel family, and are excellent diggers.
Their fur is thick and has a grey undercoat with longer
banded guard hairs of brown to black; making them look like
their hair has been "frosted."
Marmota monax makes its homes in holes, often at the roots
of trees, and their large burrows, when abandoned, provide
homes for many other types of wildlife. A wide variety of
fur and game animals like skunks, raccoons, foxes, rabbits,
and snakes all often use groundhog holes as shelter.
Woodchucks dig one five large burrows, each one requiring
the animal to move up to seven hundred pounds of soil. A
woodchuck's burrow usually has a main entrance and a couple
of smaller holes for lookout spots, and is usually dug deep
enough that the nest and separate toilet parts are below the
frost line in the winter. The nest chamber is used for the
nursery, sleeping, and hibernation in the winter, and is
cozily filled with a bed of dried grasses.
Groundhogs spend most of their non-winter days in the wild
either grazing, sunning, or caring for their pups. In winter
they are true hibernators. As soon as freezing weather
appears the older woodchucks vanish into their dens, and the
younger ones, after eating a little longer to put on more
fat, soon follow. They are all in hibernation by October, to
emerge in March or April.
Woodchucks prefer to eat fresh green plants. They commonly
eat clover, alfalfa, many common wild plants, and sometimes
garden vegetables if they can sneak into your garden. They
will occasionally also eat insects and snails, tree bark and
Each year in most of North America, the second of February
is dedicated to Groundhog
Day. The tradition came over with
the early settlers from Scotland, but grew into a holiday
celebration in the United States. The US even has a special
groundhog, named Punxsutawney Phil, who gets the honor each
year of being carried out into the cold to check his shadow
and appear on national television.
According to folklore, on the second day of February the
groundhog emerged from hibernation and checks the weather.
If it sees its shadow, it will go back to sleep on the
assumption that if it is clear on that day the cold and snow
will come back. The groundhog won't reemerge for another six
weeks. But a cloudy February second means an early spring,
so the groundhog will stay up.
Presumably the legend was originally about bears or badgers
since groundhogs are North American natives, so that may
explain the high failure rate of the groundhog's forecasts.
In reality, most woodchucks do not come out of hibernation
until March, or even later in the north.