Early this morning, the furry meteorologist came out to give us his prediction: Six more weeks of winter. Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog from Pennsylvania, performed his yearly ritual of weather prediction to a lively crowd that had gathered to witness this curious spectacle. I can’t speak for the northern climate, but here in Alabama, the groundhogs appear to have missed winter altogether this season. Only two days ago, I passed a groundhog that had been hit on the road just a mile from my house. Normally the animal burrows and hibernates throughout the coldest days of winter to conserve its limited energy supply. With the lack of cold days this winter, the little guy probably hasn’t gotten much shut-eye this season.
The groundhog (Marmota monax) is a member of the squirrel family (Sciuridae) that has attracted a host of other names, including woodchuck, marmot, thickwood badger, and my personal favorite, whistlepig. The species’ habitat spreads across much of eastern US and Canada, but is rarely found in the Deep South. The exception is Alabama, where it lives in the northern half of the state. Personally, I haven’t seen many in the region, but have noticed them occasionally along roads adjoining meadows and vegetated lowlands.
Groundhogs are one of the largest members of the squirrel family, usually reaching 10-14 pounds and 18-24 inches in length. If you’ve ever spent time gardening or farming, you are most likely familiar with the groundhog’s ability to dig tunnels and dens. Impressive little engineers they are. Unfortunately, their handiwork is often at the expense of crop growers, as they munch and dig away. If you are having issues with groundhogs digging in your garden, you have a few options to deal with them.
The first option is trapping. There are several different traps on the market that can help you. With both live-catch cages and leg-hold traps, you can take your pick of whether you want to relocate your unwanted guest or add him to the circle-of-life chain. Either way, if you want to be successful, make sure to use the right bait and to set the trap in the right location. Typically, right outside of their den hole is the best place.
The second option is defense. This is probably only a viable option if you have small gardens or raised beds. Using hardware cloth or other wire mesh products, you can construct a 3 to 4 foot high fence around your plot---and below it. Building a surrounding barrier 2 to 3 feet below the soil will keep groundhogs and other tunneling rodents from getting in through the ground. Above grade, make sure that you either keep the top portion of fence loose or angling back at 45 degrees. This will discourage climbing---of which the multi-talented whistlepig can do (crazy, isn’t it?).
The third option is hunting. If you’ve fancied the idea of being sniper after watching the latest Hollywood flick, you can always test your skills on the groundhog. No need to go into graphic detail here, but problem groundhogs can always be exterminated with a quick shot from a rimfire rifle--or a bow if you’re feeling particularly manly. And, because I’ve never been a fan of wasting opportunities, a harvested whistlepig can make decent meal—don’t let the rodent name scare you off…
While they can be particularly pesty, groundhogs have their place in the in our environment. They are an important food source for several predators—including the red fox. In controlled numbers, they can be a fun and interesting inhabitant on your landscape. If they aren’t causing significant damage, it’s probably just best to leave them be. They make an entertaining pet and at times, a decent meteorologist.
Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.