Groundhogs and Groundhog Dogs

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

The author’s niece has a groundhog dog that instinctively chased a groundhog up a limbless tree. Photo by Brynne Hinsdale.

Soon after the snow melts, the carnage begins. Rodents that snoozed the winter away in underground burrows leave their dens soon to be hit by cars. Yes, the most common animal we see dead along the roads in our area is the ever-present woodchuck, often called the groundhog.

In early spring when they emerge from their dens, some of them meander to the roadways before spring rains wash away the leftover salt our winter road crews applied to keep our pavements clear. That’s also where some of the first grasses appear, and the woodchucks dine on them as cars whiz by. Or whiz over them.

We mostly ignore these victims of Michelin, Cooper and Goodyear, but woodchucks are surprisingly interesting. Along with chipmunks and a few other rodents, they are one of our few true hibernators, with the ability to lower their heartbeat, respiration and body temperature. For months they seem almost dead, and then they are back as though nothing happened. For them, nothing did happen while the ground was covered with snow.

Hunters see woodchucks as a summertime target to keep trigger fingers in shape. They offer young hunters a great way to gain experience shooting at a live target. Shots are easy to get, and missing a woodchuck isn’t as disappointing as missing a deer. Even the bow hunter can practice on woodchucks.

Woodchucks pose a threat to farmers. In by-gone days many a horse and cow stepped into a woodchuck hole, broke a leg, and had to be “put down,” a euphemism that belies the great cost a farmer suffers when he loses an animal. Woodchucks are still a problem for farmers when dirt piles mounded up around their holes cause stress on the axels of farm machinery and damage to mower bars. A breakdown causes lost time for the farmer, who either has to fix it in the field or haul the broken machinery back to an equipment shed where he spends a half day repairing his means of production.

It’s not as though farmers don’t have enough to do, and that’s where critics of woodchuck hunters go wrong when they say, “Those woodchucks aren’t doing anything to you!” Farmers don’t often have time to eradicate their own woodchucks. And while it’s true that hunters are doing the farmers a service, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship—the farmer opens his land to the woodchuck hunter, and the hunter rids the fields of these pests.

Woodchucks can do much more damage than digging holes in open fields. In high population areas they gravitate to buildings where they dig next to foundations. That can lead to damage that’s costly to repair, and it occurs even in residential areas. I’m fighting a woodchuck right now living under my back deck.

Property owners have other issues with groundhogs. I have a dachshund, which is actually a hound bred to hunt dachs, a badger-like animal native to Europe. So wiener dogs are literally groundhog hounds, and will courageously chase them down woodchuck holes to do battle. The little dogs can even get stuck down there. My brother and I once dug one of his groundhog dogs out of a burrow where it couldn’t turn around, couldn’t back out and couldn’t even move.

When people talk about woodchucks they often revert to the old “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” I’m not sure what it means to “chuck wood,” but I know woodchucks aren’t limited to surface endeavors or underground pursuits. They also climb trees. They usually choose trees with plenty of limbs, and they don’t go up far. Fruit trees are often the “jungle gym” of choice, and I’ve seen them sitting atop fence posts.

Last week my niece in Clymer, New York, had one of her groundhog dogs—true to its hound breeding—chase a woodchuck up a straight, limbless hardwood tree. Climbing a tree like that is uncommon for a woodchuck, but not unheard of. The dog had likely never treed an animal before, but that’s instinct! Woodchucks can’t outrun cars, or wiener dogs, but they are good tree climbers, so maybe they actually do chuck wood!

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, writing about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. Contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com, and read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.

Editor’s note: We apologize for the accidental loss of the final line in Steve’s last story, titled “Making His Mark in Outdoor Communications”. The last line should have read: “Blake is making his mark, and as his mark gets broader and deeper, I hope lots of teenagers catch his vision.”