While on the edge of a southeast Michigan floodplain forest the other day, I came across a young woodchuck (Marmota monax, Sciuridae). Normally this wouldn’t be an interesting event, since woodchucks (AKA groundhogs) are very common around here. I often see them feeding on plants along roads and in fields and running into wooded areas, brushpiles, and burrows. This woodchuck, however, was about ten feet up a hawthorn tree (Crataegus sp., Rosaceae).
I had never seen a woodchuck climb a tree, but I later learned it’s not terribly unusual. This behavior is most often attributed to predator avoidance when burrows are blocked or too distant. Woodchucks have also been observed simply resting in trees, and even consuming tree foliage (Swihart and Picone 1991).
I didn’t see this individual climb the tree; it was already up there when I approached. If it climbed to avoid me, it must have seen or heard me coming from some distance. If that was the case, however, I suspect it would have taken the time to find ground cover instead. I didn’t see it foraging, but I might have interrupted it. It also may have been just resting up there and I took it by surprise. After I observed it for several minutes, it climbed down and ran away. Not the behavior I would have expected if it climbed to avoid me, unless it suddenly felt vulnerable up there and would be better off on the ground.
Swihart, R.K. and P.M. Picone. 1991. Arboreal Foraging and Palatability of Tree Leaves to Woodchucks. American Midland Naturalist 125(2):372-374.