Yellow-Bellied Marmot: The Woes of the Lowly Rockchuck

posted on 24th of april, 2009

Rockchucks (Marmota flaviventris), also known as Yellow-Bellied Marmots, have gotten a bad rap, but maybe they deserve it. These large (10-15 pound) furry rodents typically make their communal homes in rocky embankments and rockpiles, hence their name. In Central Oregon, where there is an abundance of basalt outcroppings from ancient lava flows, the rockchucks thrive among the crevices, roaming out from their protective rock pile to forage for vegetation whenever the coast is clear. Also nicknamed "Whistle Pigs" because of their shrill warning squeaks, Rockchucks are closely related to Hoary Marmots (native to the Northern Rockies), Richardson's Ground Squirrels (also known as "Sage Rats"), Woodchucks (also known as Groundhogs), and Prairie Dogs.

Rockchucks favor fresh garden vegetables and flowers over wild vegetation, which is probably why many people don’t like them around their yard. They can decimate a crop of cabbage, lettuce, summer squash, pansies or just about anything else you can grow in your garden. However, in a more natural setting, they will thrive on wild vegetation and leave humans alone.

If you browse the internet for information on rockchucks, you're likely to find grisly stories of them being used for target practice, or roasted whole, fur and all, on an outdoor grill. The recipe says you should cook them outdoors because of the stench, but it would seem to me that if you absolutely have to eat rockchuck, skin it first, so you eliminate the stench of burning fur.

Personally, I prefer them alive and well. Those who don't abhor them as pests often adore them as cute and harmless, but don't try to make them into pets. They grow large and can become aggressive when in close, confined contact with humans. However, given a clear escape route, they prefer to retreat to a protective burrow rather than face confrontation.

Photos featured here were taken at the north end of Bend, Oregon, where they have established their homes under the Bend Parkway or in rockpiles nearby. It seems their ideal habitat is the one man inadvertently makes for them. As embankments are constructed for elevated highways and overpasses, the result is a foundation of large rocks with plenty of space for the large rodents to burrow in between.

With my telephoto lens zoomed to its maximum 300mm, I was able to get these crisp close-up shots from 15-20 feet away. A more powerful zoom lens, such as 500mm or more, would be preferable to getting so close as to make the rockchucks overly wary and nervous, but the cost of such a lens is currently prohibitive. So I bring a folding chair so I can comfortably sit as still as possible, then gradually scoot closer as the rockchucks get more relaxed with my presence.

For comparison, below is a showcase of rockchuck photos from other contributors around the country, found on Dreamstime by variously searching for Rockchuck, Marmota flaviventris, Yellow-bellied Marmot, and Whistle Pig:

Comments (4)

Comment by Toynutz on April 29, 2009