Creature Feature: Groundhog
Winter is a trying time for some animals, looking for food and water sources and trying to stay warm, but there is an animal that is tucked in for a long winter’s nap, not worried at all. Now to some this animal might seem like a pest or the destroyer of gardens; but they are helpful to soils for aeration and nutrient recycling. Their burrowing action provides oxygen into the soil and brings nutrients like iron, calcium, and phosphorus to the surface helping plants. Also, the complex burrow systems they create provide safe havens for other animals in winter such as rabbits, foxes, opossums, raccoons, and skunks. Some of these may also be viewed as nuisances but that’s a story for another day. These borrows have interconnected tunnels and rooms with multiple entrances that can extend up to 40 feet!
Have you guessed we are talking about groundhogs? Or called, in your neck of the woods, woodchucks, or mouse bears (because of their appearance when sitting up), or in some parts, “whistle-pigs”? (This last refers to the high-pitched warning of danger sounds they make and “pig” in reference to their rodent-cousin the guinea pig). In actual fact groundhogs are very large squirrels (who knew?), and are also related to chipmunks and prairie dogs. They are primarily herbivores, (the aforementioned destroyer of gardens), but they won’t pass up a chance to eat other things we consider pests, such as grubs, insects, and snails. They can weigh as much as 15 pounds but an average weight is around 8.5 pounds.
Groundhogs are true hibernators. Beginning in late October or early November when outside temperatures begin to drop, they will go into the burrow and settle down. Their heart and breathing rates slow and their body temperatures drop to approximately 39-40 degrees. Between the start of hibernation until emerging from the burrow, they will lose about 25 percent of their body weight. (Explains the ravenous attack on the garden, huh?) February is the month that male groundhogs stumble from their burrows but not to predict the arrival of spring, rather they are scouting out burrows belonging to females. The fellas will ramble around getting acquainted with the girl’s locations and then will go back to the burrow until March when the mating season begins. The babies arrive in early April in a litter of two to six blind babies, once a year. The babies are called kits, pups, or most adorably chucklings. “Chucklings” stay with their mama for about three months and then go on their own way.
The most famous groundhog is of course Punxsutawney Phil. Poor Phil, he gets dragged out against his will and paraded in front of the nation before he would naturally be rousing from sleep. Really isn’t it just six of one, half a dozen of another? This tradition dates back to 1886 when the editor of the Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper, Clymer Freas, published a report that local groundhogs had not seen their shadows that day, signaling an early spring. It is likely that the story of Phil is based on European beliefs that badgers and hedgehogs an provide signals about the future, and lacking those in his area Clymer substituted the local animal that most resembles a badger or hedgehog. (Seriously, can you trust any of those to be a prognosticator of weather?)
But for now, the groundhog is snoozing away dreaming of warm spring breezes, grubs, and snails, and your luscious garden. Please plant extra.