Groundhogs are actually also our largest local ground squirrels. A large one can weigh over 12 lbs after fattening itself up by the end of Fall. The bone projection above its eye socket ( called a postorbital process) is a feature that helps place it in the squirrel family, Sciuridae. They are also the only rodents (note that all squirrels are rodents due to their ever growing incisor teeth) found locally that I am aware of that have white incisors. All other rodents that I know of around here have hardened enamel that is often yellow, orange, or otherwise discolored. Finding any rodent skull with white incisors is usually a good clue that you found a Woodchuck. The dip in the skull between the eyes is another good clue as it is unique to Marmots.
|Groundhog skull showing the postorbital process above the eye that helps determine it is in the squirrel family. Note the dip between the eyes as well that helps tell you, along with the white incisors, that this is a Groundhog.|
All Marmots are not just great diggers, but can be good climbers just like other squirrels, despite their large size and fat. They may not do it often, but they will climb, especially in search of fruit or to escape a predator. I've twice surprised them (and myself) when I came upon them up in trees. They certainly awkward up in a tree, but are remarkably agile.
Woodchucks have had a fairly prominent place in some Native American Indian cultures. Not only were they a good food item, but their tough hides made for good material. Some tribes saw woodchucks as an intermediary between the earth and sky, given the time spent either under ground or above. Some others, like the Cherokee, saw chucks as an important medicine animals due to their presumed herb knowledge of plants from the roots up. The Chippewa-Cree had what some might consider an unusual idea of groundhogs. To them, a marmot was a warrior image, someone who avoids trouble when possible, but fights hard if he needs to (sound advice for any warrior).
So this Groundhog's Day, all self respecting woodchucks should be in deep "slumber." So have a Happy Groundhog Day, but don't expect to see any real wild woodchucks for some 6 more weeks or so. Since there are so many tongue twisters associated with woodchucks, how about this statement that is a bit more accurate: "If the ground is white, I'm out of sight." You'll have better luck spotting them standing up on their haunches by the side of the road during summer.