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How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?

By the Site Ecology Team (SET) and Wildlife and Industry Together (WAIT)

July 9, 2015

Reports of woodchuck (Marmota monax) sightings are not uncommon, but are they for NIEHS? The staff directory doesn’t list any employee or contractor with “chuck” in their last name. So, is there any truth grounded in fact that there are hogs on our campus? This term is used with utmost respect. Well, it depends upon whom you ask and how you ask it. There are believers and there are doubters.

The woodchuck, alias Groundhog, Land Beaver, or Whistling Pig is native to North Carolina, ranging from the mountains through the upper piedmont. Their range continues to spread eastward and southward through the State. Being a herbivore, it’s satisfied eating a wide variety of tender shoots and new plant growth of grasses, clover, alfalfa, garden vegetables, etc. They are not known to fell trees but they can climb to get leaves and fruit. They can destroy farmer’s crops if the numbers get large enough. Since they burrow, shallow tunnels can cave in under the weight of livestock and farm machinery, not to mention the burrow openings themselves, thus causing injuries and damage. Woodchucks can’t tolerate their tunnels flooding so they stay well above the water table. Being diurnal, they are most active during the day, or at least people say they’re seen sunning on nice days.

We know that one has been seen near Building 102 and could be burrowing nearby. Sightings a couple months ago put a woodchuck at bridge #2 just before the Memorial Garden. Yesterday, one was observed by Security in front of the Rall Building. Were they the same animal? We wanted to find out and started asking questions of the locals.

Woodchuck standing in front of tree
Woodchuck at 102
Photo courtesy of Mary Wiligora
Woodchuck parent
Woodchuck parent at 104
Photo courtesy of Bill Willis

Acting on hearsay from an anomalous tipster that something would be going down that afternoon, the area in front of Building 104 was staked out. Were we to believe that they were warehouse workers, maybe undocumented? A tunnel entrance at the building foundation revealed recent activity. With camera in hand, the wait began. Not long thereafter, the first of five woodchucks appeared at the edge of the building. Getting more than a few within the frame proved difficult to impossible. The three youngsters, known as kits popped out together, and later an adult appeared. We had succeeded in documenting this fascinating family.

Woodhcuk entrance
Woodchuck entrance at 104
Photo courtesy of Bill Willis
Woodchuck kits
Woodchuck kits
Photo courtesy of Bill Willis

Some of the famous woodchucks who have weathered time include Punxsutawney Phil (PA), Sir Walter Wally (NC), Buckeye Chuck (OH), General Beauregard Lee (GA), Smith Lake Jake (AL), Wiarton Willie (Ottawa), Balzac Billy (Alberta), and Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia). Municipalities have gone to great lengths to honor them with special events, observances and movies. Who knows what these youngsters may become?

Adult woodchucks can fall victim to bobcats, foxes, hawks, owls, coyotes, sedans, and hunting. Youngsters become prey to snakes. Although, appearing cute, these critters are territorial and came become feisty if bothered. Punxsutawney Phil isn’t above biting the hand that holds him.

Faced with this FAQ, I’ll try to address it here: “What if a Woodchuck and a Beaver were to square off against each other? What wood be the outcome?”

Characteristic Woodchuck Eastern Beaver
Order Rodentia Rodentia
Species Marmota monax Castor canadensis
Overall length (inches) 20-27 24-48
Tail length (inches) 6-7 10-18
Weight (pounds) 5-12 30-50 (up to 90)
Life expectancy (years) 4-5 10-20
Maturity (year) 1 2-3
Mating season February or March December-January
Broods per year 1 (sometimes 2) 1
Gestation period (days) 31-32 90-120
Litter size 4-6 2-4 (range 1-8)
Weaned age (months) 2 at 24 forced from lodge
Lodging upland wetland
Special skills tunneling lodge and dam building
Hobbies climbing, caving, posing swimming, woodworking, hydrology
Hibernate yes no
Food preference herbivorous, varied - new growth herbivorous, varied - bark

Pound for pound, the beaver, the reigning champion, would be expected to win with the greatest number of chips, take-a-ways, or by TKO*.

*TKO = Trees Knocked Over

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