Classic Smokies Wildlife - The Groundhog

To the settlers of the Great Smoky Mountains, this now rare animal was known as the whistle-pig, chiefly because of the shrill, high-pitched whistle it gave when disturbed or excited. A cautious creature, it seldom wandered far from the burrow, even when searching for food. The predators were waiting, and this animal knew to watch for the fox, wolf, and bear. A wise creature of the open fields, it stayed put whenever possible.

Today, the whistle-pig (Marmota monax), is commonly called the groundhog or woodchuck. A member of the squirrel family, it is much larger than its fluffy-tailed relatives, about 18 inches long with stout legs and a broad flat head. Groundhog fur is of a mottled appearance - gray-black guard hairs mingled with soft yellow underfur. The underbelly and legs have a reddish tint, and its feet are black.

The groundhog lives in a den which it dug with its own sharp claws. The den or burrow has several rooms and is a safe warm haven during the winter. A male groundhog is a solitary animal, preferring to den alone for most of the year. The male will stay with the female through childbirth and early rearing of their babies. Though known as a ground creature, the groundhog has been observed climbing trees and has keen eyesight. In the afternoon hours it hunts for dinner, usually sweet grasses such as clover or alfalfa. The groundhog also enjoys tree buds, stems, and leaves. 

In the cold winter, the groundhog enters a dormant sleep period, curled in a ball deep in the den. Since it doesn't store food for the winter, the groundhog eats well before the winter sleep, seldom venturing out before February. Breeding occurs during the next month and young are born in April and May.

Visitors to the Smokies will find the groundhog most abundant in the grassy meadows of Cades Cove, close to the places where cabins once stood. Listen for it's whistle - two shrill notes with teeth gritting, then a softer chatter that gradually fades into silence. The brown head of the groundhog suddenly pops out of the burrow, reminding one of a jack-in-the-box toy from a past childhood. 

Look for the groundhog in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though they are less plentiful now due to the ecological changes occurring as the park reverts to a more forested condition, they can still be spotted on your ventures through the Smokies.