The whistlepig has spoken!

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groundhog sketch
High on Gobbler’s Knob, about 3 miles outside the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a crowd of thousands gather every Feb. 2 to celebrate Groundhog Day. This gala, broadcast around the world, stars a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil. (Whitney Locher illustration)

I know it’s silly, but every year, on Feb. 2, I settle down with my morning cup of coffee and tune into the live forecast from Pennsylvania where a famous rodent named Punxsutawney Phil makes his prognostication regarding the arrival of spring. Yes, even the lowly groundhog has its day of glory, but there is so much more to this animal than its big day in the sun … or no sun.

Found throughout the eastern United States and much of Canada, groundhogs (Marmota monax), also known as whistlepigs, woodchucks or land beavers, are rodents belonging to the squirrel family known as Sciuridae. The largest species of marmot in their range, they can weigh up to 15 pounds and measure over 2 feet in length. Typical of rodents, they sport large, ever-growing incisors, which are constantly worn down due to chewing and gnawing. Their beautiful yellow-brown pelage sports a frosty, grizzled appearance from the white-tipped guard hairs covering their bodies. Completing their image, are solid brown feet and tails and a ring of white fur around their noses.

Burrows

Groundhogs spend the majority of their lives living solitarily beneath the soil. Using their curved, sharp claws, they excavate a complex network of subterranean tunnels. These burrows contain several different chambers, including a bathroom, and have multiple entrance/exit points. Unbelievably, these galleries can extend over 30 feet in length and boast a depth of over 5 feet.

Groundhogs are extremely adaptable and thrive alongside human habitation. This close association can be troublesome, as burrows can cause damage to building foundations or endanger livestock which might unknowingly step into them, breaking a leg. Their voracious, herbivorous appetites are also responsible for decimating crops or gardens. Yet groundhogs can flourish in a variety of habitats devoid of humans as well, including woodlands, roadsides, clearings and even riparian areas.

Despite this underground existence, groundhogs are incredibly adept at climbing trees, much like their cousins, the squirrels. Should a groundhog face danger and get cut off from its burrow, it will quickly shimmy up the nearest trunk, emitting high-pitched whistles in protest and warning, thus earning it the name, whistlepig.

How much wood …

The name woodchuck was derived from the Algonquian word “wuchak.” Contrary to belief, although they do move wood while excavating their burrows, you will never see them out throwing or chucking wood around. So, you see, there is really no reason to waste your time contemplating just how much wood a woodchuck could chuck!

Mating

Groundhogs are solitary throughout most of the year. During the month of February, males awaken and sally forth from their burrows, visiting neighboring abodes occupied by females in an effort to introduce themselves. Actual courtship and mating do not occur until well into March. I was fortunate to document this fascinating courtship ritual on one of my trail cameras a few years back. The pair interacted with each other, rolling and playing like a pair of puppies while wagging their tails up and down in communication. If you’d like to view this 4-minute clip, you can find it at youtube.com/watch?v=2OV3QS8PObs.

Male groundhogs are polygamous, sharing their genes with several different females. In a chamber lined with soft vegetation that provides warmth, the female gives birth to two to six young after a gestation period of 1 month. Born in April and May, young groundhogs, adorably referred to as chucklings, are naked and defenseless. By 6 weeks of age, they are weaned and begin to eat on their own, gaining total independence at 3 months. Groundhogs do not use the same den every year, so abandoned abodes are quickly claimed by other wildlife species including foxes, raccoons, opossums, rodents, reptiles, amphibians and even insects.

Hibernation

Groundhogs are true hibernators. Unlike chipmunks, raccoons, bears or other mammals which nap on and off throughout the winter, once the groundhogs go to sleep, it’s lights out until spring. Along with groundhogs, there are only two other animals that qualify as true hibernators. Jumping mice and several species of bats can achieve a completely dormant state by slowing down their metabolism. A groundhog’s body temperature may drop to as low as 37 F, its heart beating a mere five beats per minute and taking in as few as two breaths in the same amount of time. Having spent the summer fattening up for the winter, this lower metabolism is so efficient, burning so little energy, that it enables the groundhog to maintain three-quarters of its body weight by the time spring arrives.

Groundhog Day

High on Gobbler’s Knob, about 3 miles outside the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a crowd of thousands gather every Feb. 2 to celebrate Groundhog Day. This gala, broadcast around the world, stars a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil.

Surrounded by his inner circle of caregivers with their top hats and tuxedos, the ceremony begins near daybreak. “Phil” is roused from his deep sleep, and in a language known as “Groundhogese” he communicates his prognostication to the president of the inner circle. This prediction is based on whether or not Phil sees his shadow. An early spring will arrive if no shadow is seen, while 6 more weeks of winter weather is in store if Phil sees his silhouette on the ground before him. At this point, the prediction, written on a scroll, is proclaimed to the crowd which responds with cheers or boos depending upon the results. This year will mark the 138th year that Phil, a supposed immortal groundhog, has made his forecast. Although 80% of the time he has managed to glimpse his shadow, weather agencies have studied the results finding that less than 40% of Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions actually come to fruition.

It’s fun to play the game and watch the celebration centered around this bashful rodent. Yet, like it or not, loved or loathed, the groundhog, with its adaptable lifestyle will continue to prevail. After all, not everything has a day they can boast about all to themselves! The whistlepig has spoken!

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A life-long resident of Geauga County in northeast Ohio, Tami Gingrich recently retired from a 31-year career as a Biologist/Field Naturalist with Geauga Park District. Tami has been a licensed bird bander for over 30 years. Her hobbies include photography, lepidoptera, gardening and spending time with her husband on their small farm in Middlefield, Ohio. She welcomes any questions or comments at Royalwalnutmoth@gmail.com and will gladly consider suggestions for future articles.

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