Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Animals of the Tallgrass Prairie - Woodchuck

In honor of Punxsutawney Phil and Groundhog's Day, I've decided to make the woodchuck (a.k.a. the groundhog) the featured animal in today's Animals of the Tallgrass Prairie post.

Woodchucks are a fairly large rodent in the squirrel family and are common in Missouri. They have short, powerful legs and a fairly long, bushy, and somewhat flattened tail. The coarse fur on their backs is a grizzled grayish brown with a yellowish or reddish cast to it. Woodchucks measure in length from 16 to 27 inches long and, on average, they weigh between 4 and 14 pounds (they weigh the least in spring when they are fresh out of hibernation and the most in autumn prior to hibernation). The groundhog will give out a loud, shrill whistle when suddenly disturbed or alarmed. For this reason they are sometimes called whistle pigs.

Woodchucks dig burrows along fencerows, heavily vegetated gullies, or streams, or along borders between open land and timbered areas. The main entrance is often located near a rock or a stump and is usually easy to spot due to the pile of freshly excavated earth. Side entrances (or spy-holes), are somewhat smaller and better hidden. A complex tunnel system leads to a nest three to six feet underground. In addition to the nest, the burrow also contains a separate toilet chamber.
Woodchuck or Groundhog Burrow
Woodchucks hibernate in their burrows from late October until sometime in February. Breeding takes place soon after they emerge. Pregnancy lasts 31 to 33 days, producing a single, annual litter of 2 to 9 young toward the end of March. At birth, newborn woodchucks are only about 4-inches long. They are naked, blind, and helpless; their eyes will open after 4 weeks. They start going outside of the burrow at 6 to 7 weeks of age. By mid-summer, the young weigh about 4 pounds and may dig temporary burrows before moving farther away to establish homes of their own.

Woodchucks are almost complete vegetarians. They enjoy eating leaves, flowers, and soft stemmed grasses. They also enjoy field crops such as clover and alfalfa and many kinds of wild herbs. Certain garden crops (peas, beans, and corn) are among their favorites and a woodchuck will even climb a tree to obtain an apple or a delicious pawpaw.

At one time woodchuck fur was used by man to make fur coats. The flesh of young, lean animals is good for food and, because woodchucks are one of the few large mammals that are out and about during daylight hours, many people enjoy watching them. Their burrowing makes them unwelcome in many places, including cemeteries and where earthen dams hold back lake water.

The woodchuck's importance as a builder of homes for other animals is significant. Skunks, foxes, weasels, opossums, and rabbits all use woodchuck burrows for their dens. As woodchucks move tremendous quantities of subsoil as they dig, they contribute much to the aeration and mixing of soil.

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