Not Just a Hole in the Ground

By Elizabeth C. McCarron
Art by Judith Moffatt

This is a summer burrow of a woodchuck. Burrows can be five feet deep and as long as a school bus.

The woodchuck sits up on its hind legs, chewing a wild strawberry. Looking around, the chuck freezes when it spies the farmer's dog. The dog sniffs the air, spots the chuck, and charges toward it. The woodchuck watches the enemy coming closer and closer, then POOF! The chuck disappears from sight, and the dog is left puzzled. The woodchuck has dropped into its burrow to escape.

A woodchuck burrow is more than just a hole in the ground. It is a complex system of entrances, tunnels, and rooms called chambers. Burrows give woodchucks a place to sleep, raise young, and escape enemies. When a woodchuck hibernates (sleeps through the winter), it makes a simple burrow and plugs the entrance with sand.

A woodchuck uses its strong claws to dig its own burrow. In soft soil, a woodchuck can dig an entire burrow in one day.

Each summer burrow usually has several entrances. This lets the woodchuck roam and still have a safe hole nearby in case danger comes along.

For the main entrance, a chuck may choose the woods at the edge of a meadow. The hole must be hidden from view but close to food.

The plunge hole is a special burrow entrance. It goes straight down two or more feet. When an enemy comes near, the woodchuck may give a shrill whistle, then drop straight down into the hole. This is how the woodchuck "disappeared" from the dog's sight!

Under the ground, tunnels and chambers connect the entrances. There is a sleeping chamber, a turn-around chamber, and a nursery chamber. A woodchuck burrow can even have a bathroom! A woodchuck may bury its waste in a chamber. Sometimes it adds waste to the mound of sand that marks the main entrance. This mound lets other animals know whether or not a burrow is active (being used).

Many animals look for empty woodchuck burrows. And why not? The burrows are warm in winter, cool in summer, and ready-made. Rabbits use empty burrows to avoid summer heat. They may even pop into an active burrow to escape an enemy. Skunks, weasels, and opossums use empty burrows as woodchucks do--
for sleeping, hiding, and raising their young. Foxes may take over active burrows to raise their own young in the warm dens.

Now you can see that a burrow is more than just a hole in the ground. It's the perfect place for woodchucks--or other animals--to sleep, hide, and raise young. To a woodchuck, there's no place like its burrow!

Woodchucks are also known as groundhogs. They can be found in many eastern and central states and in most of Canada.