Connie Kingman is a freelance writer from Rensselaer, Ind. She is an advanced master gardener and advanced master naturalist who enjoys touring gardens around the world.

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Problems with Woodchucks
by Connie Kingman    

Except on Groundhog’s Day, when they are cute, cuddly weather prognosticators, woodchucks are burrowing and plant-eating pests. Here’s what you should know about this rodent for the other 364 days of the year.


Photo: Flickr - solarnu

Spring finds gardeners dreaming of their best gardens yet. But, beware! There are critters dreaming of your gardens, too, one being the woodchuck (Marmota monax), also known as the groundhog or whistle pig. No matter what you call it, this pest can destroy gardens by burrowing through beds and devouring plants, two habits that give the critter its bad reputation.

There is good reason for all its tunneling and feasting. The woodchuck is just now stirring from hibernation, where, since last October, it has been rolled tightly into a ball in its underground home. Now ravenous, having lost half its body weight during that dormant period, the woodchuck must spend the rest of this year regaining enough weight to survive next winter’s hibernation.


Photo: Flickr - shoe the Linux Librarian’s
Have You Seen This Varmint?


The woodchuck is a burly rodent of the family Sciuridae, belonging to the group of large ground squirrels known  as marmot. It grows to 2 feet long, including a 6-inch bushy tail, and weighs between 4 and 14 pounds, the heaviest at hibernation.

Distinguishing traits include:
  • A broad head with rounded ears that contract and close when the animal digs
  • Grizzled brown fur
  • Reddish underbelly
  • Chisel-like incisor teeth that are white (unlike most rodents)
  • Short legs with black feet
  • Loose-fitting skin that gives the woodchuck a peculiar appearance when running, called “pouring along.” 

The woodchuck is a voracious herbivore, foraging mostly on plant parts, occasionally eating snails, insects or eggs. It is diurnal, meaning active during the daylight hours, so you might spot one dining in your garden or sunning itself while basking on a log or rocky area, probably dreaming of your garden again. Be on the lookout during the hours just after sunrise and, again, later in the afternoon. If you suspect this intruder, check the soil for prints. The woodchuck is flat-footed with four clawed toes on its front feet and five clawed toes on its rear feet.

These tracks might lead to other areas favored by the woodchuck: open forests, fields, lawns and rocky areas. Unlike other wildlife, this animal seems to thrive on human encroachment of natural habitats. Agricultural areas offer acres of tunneling ground and an abundance of food crops, berms along roadways grow a bounty of wild, nutritious plants, and deforested lands become edible and protective pastures or building sites complete with landscaping plants and gardens, all veritable salad bars for the varmint.

The destructive habits of the woodchuck cause many gardeners to overlook the significant role the animal plays in the environment. Digging and tunneling aerates the soil and blends the nutrients while its wastes act as fertilizer for the soil. Abandoned tunnels and dens become shelters for other creatures like fox, rabbit, skunk and raccoon, and the woodchuck provides food for coyote, fox, weasel, badger, hawk and eagle. 

The woodchuck is also an interesting creature. It sits up on its hind legs while using its keen eyesight and hearing to scout an area for danger. If threatened, it will respond by arching its body, baring its teeth, raising its tail or scurrying back to the safety of its burrow. Some call it the whistle pig, alluding to the shrill alarm it sounds to warn other woodchucks of approaching predators. It may also hiss, growl, shriek, bark or chatter its teeth. The industrious rodent digs long, deep burrows with its powerful limbs and thick claws, removing hundreds of pounds of soil as it constructs tunnels up to 30 feet long and 5 feet deep. Excavated soil accumulates around the tunnel’s entrance, indicating many underground chambers and escape exits below. One grass-lined area will serve as a nest chamber where the animal will spend hibernation. Another special chamber will serve as a reservoir for its wastes. 

Despite these important and interesting characteristics, gardeners must continue to devise ways to deal with the marauding invader — everything from repellents to trapping and poisoning. The best solution is a fence, for it is permanent, causes no harm to the animal, and allows for peaceful coexistence. Since the woodchuck can climb as well as tunnel, a fence design needs to consider both activities. Most sources suggest a fence of three to four parts, the first being walls at least 3 feet high, made of heavy, 2-inch woven wire. Secondly, the top of the fence needs to be an extended section of 12 to 15 inches and left unsecured at the top of the fencepost, bending outward from the garden and downward at a 45-degree angle. The instability of this unattached section discourages the pest from climbing. To discourage tunneling under the fence, the third part of the barrier should extend 18 inches into the ground. Finally, as added protection, lay another 2-foot-wide strip of fencing flat against the ground on the outside of the fence, just below the ground’s surface. Be mindful of gates; they will need to be critter-proofed also.

Building a fence takes time and effort, but should keep troublesome critters at bay, giving you the satisfaction of solving a problem and the confidence to continue dreaming of your best garden yet. 

From State-by-State Gardening March/April 2013

 

Posted: 05/22/13   RSS | Print

 

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