How to coexist with woodchucks

We’re all just trying to live our best life

Many of us only think of woodchucks at one time of year, when Groundhog Day rolls around on February 2. However, these critters sometimes can cause problems around our homes even when it’s not their special day, usually because of their digging and burrowing behavior.

Woodchuck and groundhog are two terms used to refer to the same animal, but they're also known as whistle pigs. Woodchucks are rodents, and they belong to the same family of rodents as squirrels, making them the largest squirrels in Illinois, according to Wildlife Illinois.

These stocky rodents are common across Illinois, and they are one of the few animals in the state that are true hibernators. They typically enter hibernation in October or November and will remain in that state until mid- to late February.

Because they mainly stay underground, they often remain unseen by humans. You may not know groundhogs live nearby until you see the entrances to their underground burrows or they cause problems around your house or yard.

Ecological effects

A woodchuck in its burrow.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Woodchucks are burrowers, and their old, abandoned burrows continue to be used as shelter for many other animals, including foxes, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, skunks and weasels, Wildlife Illinois reports. In addition, their burrowing activity improves soil quality because it allows it to be aerated and mixed.

Mating and reproduction

A woodchuck carrying a kit in its mouth.

(Photo courtesy of Nancy Wolfe Mariotti)

Mating season for woodchucks begins soon after they emerge from hibernation in late winter or early spring, Animal Diversity Web reports. Females usually have one litter per year, and males will have multiple mates each breeding season.

The babies are typically born in April or May. Litters can range from one to nine pups, although three to five is most typical. In addition to being called pups, baby woodchucks are also called kits or sometimes chucklings – our personal favorite.

Young woodchucks become independent from their mothers quickly, leaving to live on their own when they are about two months old. Most woodchucks do not mate until they are 2 years old.

Health risks

A woodchuck in the grass.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

Woodchucks are not considered a public health risk, although they can be carriers of the bacteria that causes tularemia, according to Wildlife Illinois. Tularemia can be transmitted to humans through contact with infected animal carcasses. Symptoms of the illness in humans include fever, chills, headaches, weakness, diarrhea and joint and muscle pain.

Problems and solutions

A woodchuck on the trail.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Woodchucks’ burrowing behavior can become problematic around our homes and gardens, and they are known to occasionally cause damage to field crops and orchard fruits as well.

If woodchucks are getting into your garden or an area planted with fruit trees or ornamental shrubs, you may want to install a fence to keep them away. Because groundhogs are good at climbing, a fence should be at least 3 feet tall, and the top of the fence should be angled at 45 degrees to prevent them from climbing over, according to Wildlife Illinois. It’s also important to deter them from digging under a fence by installing poultry wire or welded wire at least 12 inches to 14 inches under the fence line and bending the bottom 2 inches to 4 inches of the fence at a 90 degree angle away from the fence line.

No repellents or toxicants have been approved for use to control woodchucks in Illinois, and you cannot use fumigants of any kind to remove an animal from your property without a permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). It’s important to also note that often the use of toxins is non-discriminant, meaning that they can harm other animals, including pets.

If animals on your property continue to cause damage after corrective measures have been taken, consider humanely removing and relocating them only as a last resort. Woodchucks are protected as a game animal in Illinois, and trapping them to remove them from your property requires a permit from IDNR. If you do not want to remove it yourself, contact a licensed wildlife control operator to contract their services.

All wildlife in Illinois are under the jurisdiction of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. The Forest Preserve District of Will County does not treat, rescue or remove wildlife from public or private property. Both the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Wildlife Illinois maintain lists of wildlife rehabilitators you can contact for assistance with injured wildlife.

(Photos via Shutterstock)

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