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Groundhogs in your yard

The groundhog, (Marmota monax), is the largest member of the squirrel family.

They are a stocky animal weighing between four and 14 pounds and having short, powerful legs, small ears and a short, bushy tail. The body fur is long, coarse and grizzled grayish-brown in color.

Its short stocky appearance gives the impression that it crouches close to the ground, giving it the nickname “groundhog” and the shrill whistle it gives when alarmed gave rise the “whistle pig” moniker.

Groundhogs typically dig two burrows over the course of a year — one or more summer burrows and a winter burrow. They live alone except during the breeding season in early spring. Usually only one or two adults will occupy an acre of land, unless the habitat is exceptionally good.

Woodchucks spend the winter curled up in the nest in an earthen chamber plugged with soil. During hibernation, the heart rate declines to four or five beats per minute.

Woodchucks lose half of their body weight because of fat depletion and emerge gaunt and thin in the spring. Few woodchucks emerge to search for their shadows on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2. They are more likely to leave their burrows in March.

The summer burrow contains up to 45 feet of tunnels that may be up to 5 feet underground. There is one main entrance with soil piled next to it and other entrances that provide quick access should a predator threaten.

The summer burrow has a main chamber for sleeping and another used as a latrine. It is also where they raise their young. They breed in March and produce a single litter of two to six young.

Groundhogs are diurnal, so they are typically found outside the summer burrow during the day. A groundhog usually travels no more than 150 feet from its den to feed.

Groundhogs are primarily herbivores, feeding on local vegetation. A home orchard or vegetable garden is truly a smorgasbord for a groundhog. He will eat about one to 1 1/2 pounds of vegetation each day. This is the cause of groundhog / human conflict. They do not share.

Exclusion is the best control method for home gardeners, finding a way to keep the groundhogs away from a particular area. This is not as easy as it may sound. Fences should be at least 3 feet high and made of 2-inch woven-mesh wire.

To prevent woodchucks from burrowing under the fence, bury the lower edge 12 inches in the ground with the lower 6 inches bent at an L-shaped angle leading outward. Fences should extend 3 to 4 feet above the ground. As an additional measure, place an electric wire 4 to 5 inches off the ground and the same distance outside the fence.

As with all control techniques, make sure woodchucks are responsible for the damage before taking action.

To learn more about groundhogs and control, go to http://go.osu.edu/ground hog.

Scudier is an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist with The Ohio State University Extension in Mahoning County.

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