Getting to Know Groundhogs
By Sara Thompson
Photo is by Simon Pierre Barrette
Special to the Enterprise
Groundhogs are common in much of Canada, the eastern United States and parts of Alaska. They belong to the family of rodents known as marmots and have many nicknames including woodchuck, whistlepig, and land beaver. Adults range in length between 17-27 inches and can weigh up to 14 pounds. Groundhogs have complex social networks and behaviors, communicating through chirps and whistles. They are very adept to burrowing and are considered habitat engineers, helping to maintain ecosystem health and stability.
Their diets are herbivorous, eating wild grasses, berries, and can often be found in home vegetable gardens. Dandelions and clover are some of the groundhog’s favorite foods. Not often seen drinking water, it was thought that they did not need to drink. It is now known that they hydrate themselves primarily from the water rich plants they eat, supplemented with water from rain or morning dew.
Excellent diggers, groundhogs will burrow a separate den each year specifically for hibernating. Through the spring and summer, groundhogs are eating constantly. Towards the late summer, they begin the process of storing up fat in their bodies. Groundhogs are their heaviest around October, immediately before they begin their hibernation. During the hibernation months they drop their body temperature, slow their breathing to less than one breath per minute, and their heart rate slows to less than 10 beats per minute. Groundhogs will begin to emerge from hibernation as early as February, but some wait until April, and will have lost up to half of their body weight. Groundhogs in lower latitudes will emerge earlier than higher latitudes because the climate begins to warm a little earlier.
Groundhog Day has been officially celebrated in America since 1887, beginning in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. In Europe, many believed if it was sunny on the holiday of Candlemas, it would mean another 40 days of cold. In Germany the tradition included badgers and whether they would cast a shadow or not. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania, they brought the “Badger Day” tradition with them and adopted the local groundhog as the local variant. Now, each year in Punxsutawney, crowds of over 10,000 gather to see if the famed Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow cast on a sunny day, leading to more winter, or not see his shadow, meaning spring is on its way.
Although this tradition is fun, there is no true way to predict how long cold weather will last in an area. Data shows that Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions are less than 50% accurate. The weather does what it does, but groundhogs remain import parts of the ecosystem by keeping grasses at manageable lengths, and their burrows help aerate the ground keeping it healthy.
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