By Bill Willis (WAIT) and Claire Long (OM)
Woodchucks are not uncommon in the area. They are native to North Carolina, and indeed, some currently live on the NEIHS campus. Despite what their name or popular culture might make some assume, woodchucks do not toss, chuck, or throw wood. They actually get their name from the Algonquin tribe of Native Americans, who originally called them “wuchak.” English settlers, in trying to use that word, likely came up with the name “woodchuck.” Depending on where you are in the country, woodchucks are also known as groundhogs, land beavers, and whistling pigs.
The woodchuck is an herbivore preferring tender plants to coarser bark and trees. They do not typically eat hard wood. While woodchucks do not “chuck” wood, they do “chuck” dirt as they build underground burrows.
In 1988, Richard Thomas, a New York Fish and Wildlife technician, decided to estimate how much wood a woodchuck might chuck if it indeed could chuck wood. Woodchuck burrows have a long tunnel that is 25 to 30 feet long, which leads to a summer den, a winter den for hibernating, and a bathroom. Thomas calculated that the average woodchuck burrow is approximately 35 square feet. Using the dirt woodchucks remove when building their burrows as a proxy for wood, Thomas multiplied the burrow square footage by approximate weight of soil, about 20 pounds per square foot, to calculate that woodchucks chucked about 700 pounds of soil when building a burrow.
Myth Status: Busted! Woodchucks do not chuck wood. But if they did, the answer is a not very tongue twister satisfying 700 pounds.