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City critters: The woodchuck

Punxsutawny Phil
Punxsutawny Phil
Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Rarely sighted in the city--but known to inhabit all five boroughs--is the woodchuck, also known as the groundhog, whistle pig, or land beaver. The term woodchuck actually comes from the Algonquian language, whose word for the animal is wuchak--it has nothing to do with wood. These interesting creatures receive a flurry of media attention every February 2, but are largely ignored the rest of the year. In fact, they are active in the spring, summer, and fall in the early morning and late afternoon, and hibernate from October to March or April.

The woodchuck is a member of the ground squirrel family, and is common in North America at low altitudes from Georgia to Alaska. Adults are about 16-26 inches long and weigh 4-9 pounds, making them the largest member of the squirrel family in the New York area. They have a double layer of fur and thick, curved claws adapted for digging.

Woodchuck burrows have from two to five entrances, to provide escape routes, and can have more than 40 feet of tunnels. In fact, woodchucks can move more than two tons of soil when digging a burrow. Burrows can damage agricultural machinery and even undermine building foundations. Though they are usually solitary, sometimes multiple woodchucks will share a burrow. Winter burrows are dug below the frost line and stay at a steady temperature above freezing all season.

The woodchuck's primary diet is grasses and leafy plants. They also eat fruit, nuts, and sometimes grubs, grasshoppers, snails, and other small invertebrates. They eat many garden plants and agricultural crops, and are considered a serious nuisance by farmers and gardeners. Unlike other squirrels, they don't bury nuts or store food for the winter, relying instead on body fat stores during hibernation. Mating occurs in March and April, after woodchucks emerge from hibernation. The male and female share the burrow until the birth of the young, when the male leaves. Two to six young are born blind, hairless, and helpless, but are weaned and ready to leave the nest within five to six weeks.

As befits a relative of the squirrel and beaver, they are capable of climbing trees and swimming, although they spend most of their time underground. Woodchucks are normally slow-moving, but as many a gardener will attest, they can be run very quickly over short distances. Wolves, cougars, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, bears, eagles, and dogs are all predators of woodchucks; the young can fall prey to snakes which enter the burrow. They are also frequently run over by cars, because they often live along the grassy borders of roadways.

Woodchucks can sometimes be seen standing erect to watch for danger. They make a bird-like whistling sound when alarmed or in the mating season, as well as low barking and tooth-grinding sounds. Often territorial with other woodchucks, they can be aggressive and do not make good pets; Staten Island Chuck famously bit Mayor Michael Bloomberg at a Groundhog Day ceremony in 2009.

Although the woodchuck's average lifespan is just 4-6 years in the wild and up to 14 in captivity, Pennsylvania's world-famous "Punxsatawny Phil" has been predicting the weather for 127 years. (New York City's own Staten Island Chuck has only been doing it since 1981.)

Woodchucks are used in medical research to study liver cancer.

For more on New York City woodchucks, read this New York Times article.

For more interesting woodchuck trivia, see this Huffington Post slideshow.