Woodchucks as Neighbors

Woodchucks—commonly known as groundhogs—can live in both urban and rural areas throughout most of Virginia. They are active throughout the spring, summer, and early fall, though are true hibernators and remain in their dens October-February. Woodchucks are heavy-bodied herbivores, and in addition to eating grasses, dandelion, and clover, they also enjoy fresh garden veggies and fruits. They most often become “nuisance” neighbors when they start raiding gardens. 

Groundhog in meadow

Common Conflicts with People

Raiding the Garden

First, make sure you’re identifying the correct culprit; groundhogs are active during the day, so nighttime raids of the garden are by a different culprit!

A simple way to deter them from the garden during the day is to hook a garden sprinkler to a motion detector; the woodchuck will likely be startled. They will likely keep testing, though, particularly if tempted by tasty veggies. Pinwheels, mylar strips, and other visual deterrents that move may help, but need to be changed and/or moved often so the woodchuck doesn’t get used to them.

A more permanent and effective fix involves fencing around the garden or flowerbeds. Groundhogs can both dig and climb, so fences should be woven wire with openings of three inches or less and should extend down one foot into the ground. The fence should also extend eight inches out in an “L” shape. The top edge of the fence should be a little loose and unsupported so that if the animal climbs the fence, it will feel wobbly and unsteady, which will deter it from climbing over. You can also add a single strand of electric fencing four to five inches off the ground.

Dens and Burrows

Groundhogs have elaborate burrows with multiple chambers. Dens have multiple entrances, and the openings are 10-12 inches in diameter, although these rodents can fit in holes as small as three to four inches wide. Burrows can go five feet deep and can be up to 60 feet long; they are typically on slopes of 30 degrees or more, the exception being when woodchucks start a burrow under a building.

It can be impossible to get them to abandon an entire burrow system, but if certain den openings are problematic, you can work on encouraging them to stop using a particular entrance/exit.  If the burrows are not causing any structural damage to a building, consider allowing the woodchuck to continue using the den. Burrows are used by a wide variety of animals as den space or to raise young. These excavated areas are beneficial for the entire ecosystem.

To deter the use of a particular hole, keep groundcover raked away, which will make the woodchucks feel more exposed. Use visual, audio, and scent deterrents around the openings, and remember to replenish the scent deterrents daily.

Please note: Woodchucks have one litter of four to six babies per year in April or May, which takes about 10-12 weeks to grow up and become independent. Babies can be in a den as late as August. Don’t try to evict woodchucks during the baby season; it’s almost impossible for a mother woodchuck to construct a new burrow for her babies after they have been born.

To tell if an entrance or burrow is being used between April and August, insert crumpled-up newspaper in ALL entrances—of which there can be many. If no paper is pushed out after four or five days, you can assume no animal is using that entrance. Cover the entrance permanently by extending fencing or wood one foot down under the ground and 8 inches out in an “L” shape.

Woodchucks are also true hibernators. During the colder months from October to February, the woodchuck’s body temperature and heart rate will drop. They will move very little during the winter. Do not board up a burrow during the colder months. The two least risky months of the year to permanently board up any woodchuck den are March and September. This reduces the risk of trapping babies or hibernating adults in the den.

Recommended Deterrents

Scent, sight, and sound deterrents can be effective if applied regularly; if only done sporadically, their effect quickly wears off.

Visual

Woodchucks can be shy, so the goal of visual deterrents should be to startle woodchucks. Use something that moves, particularly anything that moves inconsistently, like silver mylar strips or beach balls.

Audio

Portable radios can be used in areas where you are trying to deter woodchucks; the volume should be set loud enough to startle the animals, but not so loud that it startles your human neighbors!

Scent

There are a variety of commercial products available; some use other wildlife scents (fox) to scare away woodchucks. We cannot vouch that humane methods are used to acquire the fox scent ingredient. Generally, wildlife do not like the smell of urine of other animals in their area; you can place urine-soaked rags or cat litter soaked in urine near the entrances to dens; just remember to replenish daily. Ammonia-soaked rags can also be helpful, though rags should be placed in a plastic bag with holes since direct exposure to the ammonia is not safe.

If You Find a Baby Woodchuck

Wildlife Center staff member holding a baby groundhogWoodchucks mate in March, just after emerging from their winter hibernation den. Females give birth in April to an average of 4-6 offspring; the family lives underground in a summer den, typically in fields or grasslands. Woodchuck burrows are intricate systems that can have up to 11 entrances and measure up to 45 feet.

As rodents, baby groundhogs develop very quickly. At just four weeks, the babies are fully furred and have well-developed teeth. One to two weeks later, the young are mobile enough to play and forage around the den entrance. By 12 weeks of age, young woodchucks are typically independent. Click here to learn more about what to do if you find a baby woodchuck. 

 

 

Injured Adults

An adult woodchuck, with its teeth visible, peeks out of the grass.

Adults have a powerful bite; even heavy leather gloves may not offer total protection. In most cases, it’s best to attempt to contain the injured woodchuck without directly picking up the animal with a live trap. In the state of Virginia, woodchucks are considered a high-risk rabies species; as with most high-risk species, it’s impossible to know if the animal has rabies without a brain tissue test. Always exercise extreme caution. If you find an injured woodchuck, please contact the Wildlife Center of Virginia at 540.942.9453 for advice before attempting to contain the animal. Click here for more information on helping sick and injured wildlife.

What Not to Do

  • Don’t pour gasoline in a burrow system as a deterrent – it doesn’t work, it’s risky to humans, and just the smallest spill of gasoline pollutes tremendous amounts of public groundwater.
  • Don’t attempt to “flood out” a burrow system. It doesn’t work; burrows are designed to withstand flooding.
  • Never touch a woodchuck of any age barehanded; always wear leather gloves. Don’t come into direct contact with saliva, even of baby woodchucks. If health officials feel you have had a likely exposure to woodchuck saliva, they may order the woodchuck euthanized and tested for rabies and/or start you on a series of post-exposure rabies vaccinations.
  • In Virginia, it is illegal to keep woodchucks as pets or to attempt to raise them yourself without a rehabilitation permit.  

More Information on Living with Woodchucks