Woodchucks

Image © 2006 Charles H. Warren

Woodchuck, also known as groundhogs, have short, strong legs with curved claws on their front paws that are designed for burrowing. Woodchucks are excellent diggers; it is said that they can move up to 700 pounds of dirt in one day.

Woodchucks are active in the early morning and early evening and are commonly seen by roadsides foraging for food. They are primarily vegetarians that eat from gardens, lawns and orchards, but they also eat insects, such as slugs, grasshoppers and June bugs. One of the true hibernators, they sustain themselves during the winter on fat reserves they accumulate during the warmer months.

Living in Your Yard

Woodchucks are associated with crop fields, but suburban neighborhoods provide adequate food and shelter.

Woodchuck burrows can have one to four entrances with a tunnel system averaging 25 to 30 feet in length and 2 to 5 feet in depth. The main entrance to the burrow is about 1 foot in diameter. Common areas for woodchucks to burrow are under decks, buildings and sheds; openings under concrete slabs and porches; and tall grassy areas. They are cautious animals and do not travel far from the entrance holes when foraging for food.

Preventing Problems

  • Do not encourage woodchucks by feeding them.
  • Do not allow spills to accumulate below bird feeders.
  • Use welded wire to prevent animals from accessing openings under decks, elevated sheds, concrete slabs and porches. 

Recommended Deterrents

  • Woodchucks are easily frightened. Leave inflated beach balls in the yard. The wind will blow them around and frighten the animals. Scarecrows, plastic bags on sticks or other objects that move in the wind are also effective; but as the animals grow used to these items, their effectiveness will diminish.
  • Occasionally, woodchucks climb trees in search of food. Wrap a 4- to 6-foot-wide piece of aluminum flashing around tree trunks so they cannot get a foothold on the bark. Make sure the aluminum flashing is a minimum of 4 feet from the ground. This provides an immediate solution, but you should leave the flashing up for five to seven days.
  • Place lighting, such as bright flashlights, flood lamps or blinking strands of holiday lights, in the den. It is best to leave the lights on 24 hours a day. If this is not possible, the lights must be on at night to disturb the animal’s sleep.
  • Play a radio, portable alarm clock, noisy children’s toy or anything that makes noise repeatedly either in or near the den. It is best to have the sound on for 24 hours a day. If this is not possible, the sound must be on at night to disturb the animal’s sleep.
  • Place ammonia-soaked rags in the den for one week. (Ammonia has an irritating smell.) Over time, the ammonia will dissipate, so it is important to resoak the rags daily. Do not use ammonia-soaked rags March through August; they may injure infant wildlife too young to escape.

For deterrents to be successful, it is important to use all of the techniques at the same time. To determine if an animal has left a den site, wad up newspaper, and pack it into the den entrance. (This also helps to hold in ammonia fumes.) If the animal is still using the den, the newspaper will be pulled out. If after a few days the newspaper has not been disturbed, securely repair any openings. Failure to do so may result in another animal moving in.

Gardens

The best way to keep woodchucks out of your garden is to build a 4-foot-high chicken-wire fence around it, leaving the top 12 to 18 inches bent outward and unattached to any support. The woodchuck’s weight will pull the top of the fence down, landing the animal back where it started. Fold the bottom 6 inches of the wire out at a 90 degree angle, and bury 1 to 2 inches underground. Woodchucks are not only skilled climbers but also good diggers.

Planting onions, flowering onions, garlic, fritillaria or tropaeolum around the perimeter may deter woodchucks. The plants have either an unpleasant taste or smell. 

Other taste deterrents work, such as spraying a mixture of 1 gallon of water and 2 tablespoons of hot sauce or garlic puree onto the plant, but they need to be reapplied after a heavy dew or rain. Nurseries or home centers may carry commercial products as well.

Public Health Concerns

Woodchucks are not considered significant sources of diseases that can be transmitted to humans. They may carry rabies, but there have not been any reports in DuPage County in recent years.

What Not To Do

  • Trapping and removing an animal is not always a solution to the problem. Removing the animal is illegal without the proper permits and only creates an open space for another animal. A trapped adult may also leave young behind to die of starvation in an inaccessible area. Focus on removing the attraction, not the animal.
  • Never move young from a den. 
  • Do not use poisons. They are inhumane and may be illegal. They can also result in secondary poisoning of raptors, wild scavengers and neighborhood pets.
  • It is illegal to keep wild animals, even for a very short time. They have specialized nutritional, housing and handling needs that you are unlikely to be able to provide. Inexperienced individuals who attempt to raise or treat them inevitably produce unhealthy, tame animals that cannot survive in their natural habitats.

Willowbrook Wildlife Center

If you come across a wild animal and are concerned, leave it alone. Call Willowbrook Wildlife Center for advice at (630) 942-6200. The center is located at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except select holidays. Recorded messages provide general information for callers when the center is closed.

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