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Do Groundhogs Abandon Their Burrows?

Groundhogs are large herbivorous rodents. They live in temperate regions with forests, grasslands, and abundant vegetation. They’re often an annoyance for gardeners and farmers, who find that these pesky animals have raided the garden at night. 

This article discusses groundhogs’ burrowing habits. You’ll learn more about groundhog behavior as well as the animals that rely on the burrows they excavate.

Key Takeaways: 

  • Groundhogs travel between two or more burrows throughout the year while they forage for seasonal foods. They typically return to these burrows year after year. 
  • Groundhogs’ burrows help them stay safe from predators, hoard food, and raise their young in a threat-free environment. 
  • A groundhog’s burrow is ecologically necessary for other species that need burrows but can’t dig one themselves. 

Do Groundhogs Abandon Their Burrows? 

Groundhog in a burrow
Groundhog in a burrow | image by Doug Tammany via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Groundhogs are not loyal to the same burrow for their whole life, or even in the same year. A single groundhog usually has two burrows. The first is used during the spring and summer months, and the second is used during the fall and winter. 

The groundhog selects a place to build a burrow based on food availability. Even if it doesn’t use the same burrow, It will stay in the same general area year after year until the end of its lifespan or the food runs out. 

Why do groundhogs live in burrows? 

Groundhog pups
Groundhog pups | image by Oak Ridge National Laboratory via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Groundhogs live in burrows because they are small to medium-sized prey animals. They’re susceptible to predation from a variety of larger species, including hawks, eagles, dogs, wolves, snakes, raccoons, coyotes, and juvenile mountain lions.

Living in a burrow provides safety and concealment from things that could kill the groundhog. They dig out the burrow in just a few days, thanks to their powerful paws. The burrow serves as their ‘safe zone’ where they evade predators and raise their young.

Conditions underground are occasionally more hospitable than outside in the elements, too. Underground, temperatures are stable and comfortable, but outside, it may be extremely hot or cold. This is evident especially in the dead of winter – groundhogs can hibernate for three months underneath feet of snow, yet be completely insulated.  

Burrows provide a safe place for hibernation and food storage. Baby groundhogs are raised in the burrow until they’re old enough to venture outside and start foraging for themselves. 

Groundhogs’ burrows are sophisticated and highly organized. Like other digging rodents, groundhogs excavate chambers for different functions and purposes. A single burrow can have ‘bathroom’ chambers, ‘pantries,’ and ‘nursery’ rooms. 

Do groundhogs use the same burrow every year? 

Groundhog by the entrance
Groundhog by the entrance

Whether a groundhog reuses its old burrow depends on the available resources that the groundhog can access each time it comes back. 

Groundhogs use two burrows each year. The winter burrow is usually in the forest and it is smaller because the animal hibernates in it for the coldest months of the year. The summer burrow is larger and located near food sources. 

If food sources change – for example, a farmer moves his vegetable patch one year to the other side of his property – the groundhog probably won’t return to that summer burrow. It’s more likely to dig a new burrow in the ground near the new garden. 

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In summary, groundhogs aren’t loyal to a specific burrow year after year. They are loyal to food sources. If the food availability stays the same from year to year, it’s likely you’ll see the same groundhog each season.

What are the benefits of having a groundhog in your yard? 

While groundhogs can be nuisance animals, they do add benefits to yards as long as their burrows are far away from any buildings so they don’t pose a settling risk to foundations. 

The soil reaps many benefits thanks to groundhogs. When these mammals dig, they churn up the soil. It mixes different kinds of soil together and increases the air content between each grain of dirt. That makes it easier for plants to grow and beneficial invertebrates (like worms) to wriggle through. 

Groundhogs eat pest insects and invertebrates that cause problems in gardens: think of species like snails and slugs. They also eat dandelions, which most people consider pesky lawn weeds. 

They’re a great indicator of biodiversity in a temperate ecosystem. When groundhogs are present, there are likely other middle-range herbivores and meso-predators nearby. Higher biodiversity attracts more bird life, small mammals, and improves the health of plants. 

If you have a groundhog that’s pilfering your vegetables, consider offering him food delivery directly. Leave some vegetable scraps outside the burrow on a regular basis and the groundhog will probably stop stealing from your garden.  

What time of day do groundhogs leave their burrows? 

Groundhog out of his hole
Groundhog out of his hole | image by wombat434 via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Groundhogs are diurnal. This means they are active during the day and sleep at night. They rarely venture out at high noon, however. A groundhog is most active during the morning and the evening, a term biologists call ‘crepuscular.’ 

They balance their exposure in the daylight by slinking along edges of bushes and in the shadows of trees. When the sun is at a low angle in the sky, it creates strong shadows that help hide them from predators’ eyes. 

A groundhog rarely ventures far from its burrow’s entrance so it can run back underground as soon as it spots danger.

You’re most likely to spot a wild groundhog near the edge of a forest. They’re common on rural roads, foraging along the edge of the tree cuts. They’re also seen near the foundations of buildings and patios. They like to be concealed when they dig into the ground. 

What animals live in groundhog burrows? 

A huge variety of animals live in abandoned groundhog burrows. Other small mammals like gophers, chipmunks, and ground squirrels may pop into a burrow to seek shelter. A passing skunk might take shelter in a burrow, or use it as a rest stop while walking with her kits. 

Other mammals, like raccoons, might set up a home base in an abandoned groundhog burrow. This is especially common if the burrow is near human settlements. Raccoons like going through trash and refuse left behind by people. 

Coyote
Coyote

Less common uses for groundhog burrows include coyote and fox dens. As long as the entrance and tunnels are large enough, it’s possible. Some female foxes have been observed using a groundhog burrow as their home base to bear and nurse their kits. 

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The biggest risk for an animal crawling into a burrow is the fear that there’s already someone there. Snakes are the main antagonist in these situations. Some snakes slither into abandoned burrows and wait out of sight until an unsuspecting visitor ventures too far inside. 

Conclusion 

The groundhog is a valuable engineer of its ecosystem. It takes what would be an inhospitable area – the edge of a forest with little to no places to hide – and by digging a burrow, turns it into a place of respite. The burrow acts as a safe haven that lets the groundhog venture into unknown places to forage for grasses, vegetables, flowers, and tree bark. 

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About Anna Lad

Anna is a wildlife biologist who graduated from Texas A&M in 2020. She enjoys studying and learning about wild birds and wildlife of all types.