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Mammals

Woodchuck or Groundhog
(Marmota monax)

Photo: Adele Hodde, Illinois Department of Natural Resources
A well-fed woodchuck is sitting upright on a green lawn with its paws near its face.

Did You Know?

  • Woodchucks are rodents.
  • Woodchucks are the largest squirrels in Illinois.

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Positive Benefits

Abandoned woodchuck burrows provide shelter for a number of wildlife species including rabbits, raccoons, foxes, skunks, weasels and opossums. Additionally, woodchucks move large amounts of subsoil when digging their burrows, which helps to aerate and mix the soil.

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Description & Identification

Woodchucks belong to the family Sciuridae (the squirrel family) and are related to other “marmots” that occur in the western United States. They are a stocky animal with a relatively flat head, blunt muzzle, short legs and a bushy tail. Their fur is yellowish-gray brown to blackish with the underside often lighter. Woodchucks have small ears and large black eyes.

Photo: Adele Hodde, IDNR
Woodchuck foraging in the grass for food.
Woodchuck foraging in the grass for food.

Woodchucks weigh 7 to 14 pounds, and are approximately 20 to 25 inches long, including the tail. Males are typically larger than the females.

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Size Comparison

Illustrator: Lynn Smith
Man and woodchuck illustration
Size comparison of a six-foot tall man and a woodchuck.

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Signs: Tracks & Scat

Woodchuck tracks are fairly easy to identify. They have four toes on the front paws and five toes on the back paws. The tracks will be spaced about four inches apart when walking and twelve inches apart when running. Woodchuck prints are about one and a half inches long.

Photo: Liza Watson
Notice the woodchuck track on top has four toes (front paw) and the track on the bottom has five toes (hind paw).
Notice the track on top has four toes (front paw) and the track on the bottom has five toes (hind paw).

Woodchucks defecate in toilet chambers they dig underground. If you find droppings on your property they are from an animal other than woodchucks.

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Distribution & Abundance

Woodchucks are common throughout the state. They typically live in densities of one or two adults per acre, although in prime habitat there may be more.

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Behavior & Ecological Role

Woodchucks are diurnal (most active during the day), particularly in the early morning and late afternoon hours. They stay close to their burrows when feeding and typically only stay above ground a couple of hours per day.

Photo: Jared Duquette
Woodchuck coming out of its burrow under a wire fence-line.
Woodchuck coming out of its burrow under a wire fence-line.

Unlike most mammals in Illinois, woodchucks are true hibernators. They begin hibernation in October or November and come out of hibernation in mid- to late February. Researchers have found that while in hibernation a woodchuck’s body temperature drops from about 97°F to 34°F, its breathing slows to approximately one breath every six minutes and its heart beats only four times per minute.

Photo: Gordon Garcia
Woodchuck coming out of its burrow.

Except during the breeding season, when a male and female will share a burrow, woodchucks are typically solitary animals. They are territorial and will defend their burrow against intruders. When threatened, they chatter their incisors and use short, sharp whistles to warn other woodchucks of danger. Woodchucks are not fast runners, but they are capable of defending themselves when threatened.

Abandoned woodchuck burrows provide shelter for a number of wildlife species including rabbits, raccoons, foxes, skunks, weasels and opossums. Additionally, woodchucks move large amounts of subsoil when digging their burrows, which helps to aerate and mix the soil.

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Diseases & Public Health

Woodchucks can be carriers of tularemia, but they are not considered a public health risk. Tularemia is caused by the bacterium Francisella tularensis. Symptoms can include fever, chills, headache, diarrhea, joint or muscle pain and weakness. People can contract the disease from handling infected carcasses.

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Reproduction & Longevity

Woodchucks do not breed until their second year. Breeding occurs in late February or March. The gestation period is 31 to 32 days, with four to five young born in April or early May. Woodchucks have one litter per year. Young woodchucks will start looking for their own living space when they are approximately two months old.

Photo: Adele Hodde, IDNR

The average lifespan of a woodchuck is three years. Coyotes, foxes, bobcats, weasels, dogs, owls, and hawks prey upon woodchucks. Woodchucks are often killed by vehicles, because they move relatively slowly.

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Damage Prevention & Control Measures

Woodchucks may damage garden vegetables, field crops, or orchard and nursery stock. They often cause only minor damage to properties. However, if there are many woodchucks on a single property, or one animal is being overly destructive, there are several ways that the landowner can remedy the situation.

Habitat Modification

Given their habitat requirements, it is difficult to modify a property to discourage woodchucks. Properties with some slope to the land will be more likely to attract woodchucks than those that are relatively flat.

Exclusion

If there is a small area of property that you want to protect from woodchucks, such as a garden or a group of fruit trees or ornamental shrubs, fencing can help reduce the damage. Woodchucks are skilled at climbing and digging. Therefore, to keep a woodchuck out, fences must be at least three feet high. The top of the fence should make a 45° angle to prevent the woodchuck from climbing over the fence. Since they easily burrow under fences, a wire deterrent (heavy poultry wire or welded wire) below the fence line must be used to keep them from digging under. Bury the wire 12 to 14 inches underground, bending the lower edge (bottom two to four inches) of the wire at a 90° angle pointing out from the fence line. An electric hot-shot wire located four to five inches above the ground outside the fence will discourage climbing and burrowing. Use hardware wire to exclude woodchucks from digging under porches and decks.

Repellents

Currently there are no approved repellents or toxicants for woodchuck control in Illinois.

Fumigants

Carbon monoxide gas cartridges can effectively kill woodchucks. You will need an animal removal PERMIT from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources before using fumigants to control woodchucks.

Because gas cartridges pose potential fire and gas accumulation hazards, they should never be used near homes or other buildings. For best results, burrows should be treated on cool, rainy days or during periods of woodchuck inactivity to make sure the woodchuck is in the burrow and not out foraging for food. Vacant burrows may be reoccupied by woodchucks from nearby areas so all fumigated burrows should be rechecked weekly for a month. Other species may also take over the burrow, so keep an eye out for signs (tracks, scat, food remains) that show a fox, coyote or other animal has moved into the burrow.

Removal

Photo: Liza Watson

Removal of a woodchuck is only necessary if the animal is causing substantial property damage or is a public health or safety concern. Since it is difficult to modify habitat to discourage woodchucks, other woodchucks will eventually take up residence on your property. Exclusion is typically a better method to control woodchucks than removal.

You can hire a nuisance wildlife control operator to trap and remove the animal.

To remove a woodchuck from your private property yourself, you will need a PERMIT from an Illinois Department of Natural Resources district wildlife biologist before the animal is removed. Woodchucks can be Iive-trapped using a welded wire or metal live trap baited with apples. Traps must be checked at least once a day.

Woodchucks must be released or euthanized within 24 hours of capture. If the animal will not be released on the same property where it was trapped, you will need written permission from the landowner to release the woodchuck on another property. As with all other mammals, it is not permitted to release woodchucks in public parks, forest preserves or natural areas.

 

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