Woodchucks know how to live.
During winter they sleep.
Then they summer on the waterfront.
For at least three years woodchucks have found their digs downtown, burrowing dens along the Amtrak rail corridor that runs between the I-190 south and the Niagara River. They have been seen foraging for food in LaSalle Park, at the foot of Porter Avenue, along Michigan Avenue – and in the gardens and lawns of some waterfront condos.
“They ate all my flowers,” said Cynthia Mathews of Lakefront Boulevard. “That’s why I haven’t been doing any gardening. Every time I put a bulb in the ground it disappeared. They’ve killed all but one of my rosebushes. I just surrendered everything to them.”
It’s not uncommon for woodchucks to find their way to urban areas, said one regional wildlife manager.
“I think they hitched a ride on the railroad right of way,” said Mark Kandel, regional wildlife manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “It’s probably taken awhile for woodchuck generations to leapfrog in from the surrounding suburbs. Their young get pushed out of the den and have to start on their own so that’s how they leapfrog their way downtown. We have these nice corridors of habitat along the railroads as well as some of the utility overhead lines.”
The woodchuck, also known as groundhog, or whistle pig, is one of the largest members of the squirrel family. They are herbivores and range in weight from 5 to 12 pounds. Woodchucks spend the summer and fall raising their young and fattening up for their winter siesta. They rarely stray far from their den, said Kandel.
“It’s their security,” he said. “When they’re threatened they head for the hole. When they’re feeding, as they are now, you would not expect them to venture more than 50 feet from the den. Woodchucks are not big travelers.”
Woodchucks are not the only animal to find their way to downtown Buffalo. Deer are not unusual. And ring-necked pheasants were a frequent flier downtown during the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, said Kandel.
“We used to have quite a few ring-necked pheasants right along the 190 and the railroad where ragweed produces seed that woodchucks feed off,” said Kandel. “We’ve even had turkeys come in on the railroad. A few years ago, a black bear was hit by a car on the 190 near Smith Street. Bears from the south of the city follow the utility lines. The clearing is fifty yards wide and makes great travel corridors for wildlife.”
Loren Smith is executive director of the Buffalo Audubon Center. With offices at the Beaver Meadow Audubon Center in North Java, Smith said he often sees woodchucks, especially on his commute to North Java from Amherst on Route 400.
Woodchucks in downtown Buffalo, Smith said, are a good sign for a number of reasons.
“It could be seen as an indication that the river is getting healthier, which is good,” Smith said. “The river corridor is undergoing a transition from industrial to recreational with open green space.
“One year it’s skunks, one year it’s possums,” said Smith. “In general we’re seeing more wildlife in Buffalo as the human population goes down and as green space increases. Some people may see them as nuisances, and they may be in specific instances, but in general it’s a positive sign.”
In populated areas, woodchucks will often live beneath stone walls, woodpiles or porches. Their burrows – 8 to 66 feet long and 2 to 5 feet deep – normally have two or three entrances, said Meaghan Boice-Green, director of Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve, Cheektowaga. Woodchucks often are drawn to lush lawns. “The grass is literally greener on the other side of the fence,” Kandel said. “The woodchucks know that. They figure it out.”
Nathan Phillips-Frey has lived on Lakefront Boulevard for more than decade. Just last week, he said, he saw a woodchuck in his backyard, which abuts the rail corridor.
“I thought it was a rabbit lying on our back lawn, and it was a woodchuck sunning himself,” Phillips-Frey said. “Then he squirmed under the fence, crossed the tracks and went into his den.” Residents are warned against approaching a woodchuck, who may make a whistling sound to signal his alarm.
“Woodchucks are not aggressive,” said Kandel. “Generally they will flee to their den at the first sign of trouble. Legally, a landowner can trap them, but the landowner would then need permission to release them at a preserve. Woodchucks are not protected wildlife, but you can’t just dump them on someone else’s property, including public property,” said Kandel.
Last year, Mathews said she called the City of Buffalo’s non-emergency help line – 311 – to seek help with her woodchuck problem.
“I called the city and they came out,” said the retired school principal. “I had a big woodchuck hole in my yard, and they put traps down.”
Steven Stepniak, city commissioner of public works, confirmed 50 active calls to 311 from residents complaining of woodchucks.
“Our guys have 311 to remove woodchucks,” said Stepniak. “Waterfront Village is one of the areas where we’ve been trapping. Also the foot of Porter and LaSalle Park.”
Members of the city’s Animal Control Unit are certified trappers under DEC guidelines, said Stepniak.
“We trap and euthanize in accordance to DEC regulations,” he added.
“There have been more calls for woodchucks than in the two previous years,” said Stepniak. “The numbers are up in the area, and we’re thinking favorable winters are a big factor.”
The City of Buffalo Call and Resolution Center can be reached by dialing 311 or 851-4890. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. During periods when the center is closed, email at email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message online at http://www.city-buffalo.com/311.