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All in a Name: Woodchuck, Ground Hog or Whistle Pig

All in a Name: Woodchuck, Ground Hog or Whistle Pig

AUBURN, Ala.—Will the woodchuck see his shadow? How much wood would a groundhog chuck? It is not a case of mixed metaphors, but rather multiple names for the same animal.

Dr. Mark Smith, a wildlife scientist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, says the barrel-shaped mammal answers to a number of names.

“The Latin name is Marmota monax, but people have a lot of names for it,” said Smith. “Groundhog and woodchuck are probably the most common ones, but you will also hear them called marmot, whistle pig and land beaver.”

Smith said the name whistle pig comes from the sound that a woodchuck makes when frightened. Woodchuck comes from a Native American word for the animal, wuchak.

“They can reach about 2 feet long and generally weigh about 6 to 10 pounds,” said Smith. “Woodchucks eat a variety of plant matter. They will eat fruits and vegetables as well as twigs, bark, roots and tender plants such as clover. But they may also supplement their diet with grubs and insects.”

While Alabama has two fairly well-known groundhogs, Birmingham Bill and Smith Lake Jake, Dr. Troy Best, a zoology professor at Auburn University says that the state is home to plenty of the species, which is the largest member of the squirrel family.

“Woodchucks or groundhogs are found in the northern two-thirds of the state,” said Best, who is the co-author of Mammals of Alabama. He describes woodchucks as having a relatively large body with short legs, well adapted for digging. They have dark brown fur that is interspersed with yellowish, white, black and brown hairs that give their coat a frosted appearance.

According to Mammals of Alabama, woodchucks prefer lowland habitats between woodlands where they hibernate and fields where they forage and raise their young. They are most active in daylight hours but may be active at night, especially if food is in short supply. While they are primarily ground dwellers, they are good swimmers and will climb trees to forage for food or escape predators.

Dr. Jim Armstrong, another Alabama Extension wildlife scientist, says that foxes, coyotes and domestic dogs are all predators of the woodchuck.

“Bob cats, owls and hawks are also woodchuck predators,” said Armstrong. “Snakes may invade woodchuck dens to prey on woodchuck young.”


Featured Image by:  Brett Marshall, Sault College, Bugwood.org

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