The sides of highways are an assault on the senses, with hot blasts of wind radiating from the busy roads bringing pungent fumes and loud noises that overwhelm most wildlife that approach. Many times, wildlife stumbling onto a highway are forced to quickly turn back or face a quick death attempting to cross through a seemingly endless stampede of automobiles.
Even though some highways pass through dense and largely undisturbed natural lands, many of the local residents shy away from highways due to these offensive and dangerous aspects.
There is one North American mammal that doesn’t seem to mind the road one bit, however.
Groundhogs are one of the most commonly seen roadside wanderers. In fact, these rodents can get so comfortable with the flow of vehicles that they sit dangerously close to the edge while they munch on their favorite grasses. Groundhogs aren’t only found by the side of the road; these animals have in large part benefited by human developments and take up residence in many of our parks, farms, yards and other grassland-type areas where they have ready access to the grasses, berries and weeds that they constantly stuff themselves on.
Groundhogs go by many common names including woodchucks (he-chucks and she-chucks), thickwood badgers and even whistlepigs due to their tendency to squeal when attacked or to warn their young of approaching danger.
They are the largest members of the squirrel family in North America, using their strong and stout bodies to dig burrows to take shelter from bad weather and predators.
Groundhog burrows are usually around 30 feet long and an average of 3 feet underground, with up to five multiple entrances and branching rooms. These glamorous abodes are only built for one. Groundhogs normally live alone, and females tend to live with their young for just a few short months until their company is no longer able to be tolerated.
Most groundhogs have summer homes in lush grasslands and winter pads in protected forest environments, where they settle down in late fall and hibernate throughout the winter.
In the summer they are rarely found far from an entrance to their burrow, and whistlepigs quickly retreat to their safehouse in the event of danger. Although their large size enables them to ward off most other common squirrel predators, coyotes, foxes and dogs still pose dangerous threats.
Even though groundhog tunnels are large and can sometimes be under buildings or other structures, in general they do not compromise the structural integrity of the aboveground construction unless there are immense colonies in the area.
Woodchucks can usually be a much greater threat to the garden, where a single marmot can destroy a plant in an afternoon’s work. Having a dog sometimes helps with this, as their repeated presence and smell in the garden can deter groundhogs from getting too close. Other than that, however, erecting a fence that is 3 foot high and buried 10 inches deep will be the best bet at keeping these tenacious nibblers away. Groundhogs actually perform important soil mixing and aeration by excavating their tunnels and are a benefit to any environment despite their hungry nature.
If you notice burrow entrances in an area that are a hazard or otherwise unwanted, after any young have moved on (around July 1), stuff rags covered in olive oil into all of the entrances but one. The rags will begin to give off odors that the groundhogs find distasteful, prompting them to relocate to another location that is hopefully better for all parties involved.
Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.