Made famous by a February fable, this large North American rodent has some interesting and surprising traits.
By Knolan Benfield
Driving down a country road and seeing a deer, a coyote, or even a bear is exciting. Spotting wildlife along the roadsides during our travels can turn a trip into an adventure. What will be around the next curve or over the next hill?
While we may find “big game” occasionally, it’s the abundance of wild creatures out there — each with their own fascinating stories — that adds to the enjoyment of wildlife watching from an RV. Take the groundhog, for instance.
Watch for the little fellows (they are watching you). Next to the rabbit, the groundhog probably is the creature most often glimpsed in the grass. Within the United States, groundhogs can be found in most places east of Kansas and north of Florida. They also live throughout much of Canada and also can be found in parts of Alaska.
This little guy, made famous in the February fable of Groundhog Day, possesses some weird — if not eccentric — lifestyle facts
The groundhog is known by a number of other names as well — among them woodchuck and whistle pig — but the scientific types call him Marmota monax. That’s a tall name for such a short fellow; a typical groundhog measures only six or seven inches tall at the shoulders. A big male may be as long as 26 inches, plus a 7-inch or 8-inch tail.
Just like the rest of us, a groundhog’s weight depends on how much he or she eats. Ten pounds is about the average weight for a groundhog, but some put on a few extra pounds. The heaviest can weigh as much as 30 pounds.
He may be called a groundhog, but he can climb trees. That 1½-foot-long, 10-pound squirrel you thought you saw up a tree last week (you know, the one you didn’t mention to anyone) probably was just our friend the groundhog, and not a figment of your imagination.
A groundhog doesn’t climb often, but some have been spotted 40 feet up a tree. He is the largest member of the squirrel family. He has a closer cousin out West — the yellow-bellied marmot, which lives among the rocks in the Rockies. But back to our little Eastern friend.
The groundhog wears a reddish to blackish-brown fur coat and can live to the ripe old age of 5 or 6 years in the wild.
How He Spends His Days
A groundhog may not live very long, but he has an enviable lifestyle. When not eating, he sometimes soaks up the rays of the sun. His time in the sun changes with the seasons. During the springtime, he’s out in the morning. In the summer, he sunbathes longer. Once fall arrives, he limits his sun time to midday. The rest of the time is spent sleeping in his burrow.
Danger lurks all around for our friend when he is outside. He must stay alert and not wander far from his den.
Groundhogs are primarily vegetarians, but they will eat an occasional insect if given the chance. If a groundhog lives near your garden, you have a problem. I’ve watched them push cornstalks to the ground by straddling them and walking forward so they can get to the ears of corn.
They’ll eat alfalfa, beans, clover, peas, lettuce, and grass. Fruits and berries are not safe either. An adult groundhog will eat about a pound of food a day. He rarely drinks water. All the moisture he needs comes from his food.
Home Sweet Home
To create a den, a groundhog first digs down four or five feet. He then levels off and excavates a horizontal burrow that may be 30 or more feet long, with side chambers. He digs with his front feet and shoves the dirt back under his body. When he judges he has dug enough, he uses his head to push the dirt out the front door. He piles the dirt up around it. He’ll cut two to five or more smaller entrances to use as escape routes, but only the front door remains open. All the others are plugged from below and are not visible from above ground.
The pile of dirt around that front door gives him a bit of height above the grass so he can sit and observe the landscape. That dirt lets us know that a groundhog is in residence. He cleans out his burrow several times a week. This main entrance is where he often is seen sitting or standing on his pile of dirt.
Not Always Quiet On The Home Front
Despite the leisurely life the groundhog appears to lead, he has enemies. He is a tough little fighter, but some dogs will take him on, and the red fox prefers him to most other prey within its range. Coyotes take a heavy toll in some areas. Eagles seize an occasional adult groundhog, and hawks nab some small ones.
Groundhogs like to feed on the roadside, which seems to be a dangerous place for them based on the number of deceased found there.
Never Far From Home
When food is sufficient, a groundhog rarely travels more than 150 feet from home. In the springtime when a young male is looking for a mate, he usually can find one within four acres or so.
The longest trips are made in late summer when the young ones move away from home. Even then, it could be only a 100-foot journey if there’s plenty of food and a place to build a home or to remodel one, assuming the previous owner no longer has a need for an earthly dwelling.
Speaking of moving, a groundhog usually just walks along until he finds something he wants to eat. He’ll stand up and check out the area for any potential predators and then amble to the next place to nibble.
If trouble is spotted, he will head for home in a gallop at up to 11 miles per hour. He can swim if he needs to, but he rarely wanders far enough from home to get wet.
The Big Sleep
Bears usually come to mind when we think about animals hibernating. But bears don’t truly hibernate; they just go into a deep sleep and will wake up in seconds if disturbed. The groundhog, however, takes hibernation amazingly seriously. Once he settles down for his long winter nap, nothing and no one can wake him up. Scientists have tried and failed. Even Prince Charming probably couldn’t awaken this Sleeping Beauty.
Once a groundhog dozes off, some astonishing things happen: His heartbeat drops from about 100 beats per minute to only four beats a minute, and his body temperature plunges from 97 degrees to 40 degrees. The most impressive change relates to his breathing; during hibernation, a groundhog breathes only once every six minutes. He feels like a cold, furry rock and is just as unresponsive.
Despite this astounding slowdown in lifestyle, the groundhog still loses about 30 percent of his weight during the three to four months of hibernation. Now that’s hibernating. Mortality is high during hibernation, and it’s no wonder.
Other animals sometimes share the groundhog’s den during the winter. Rabbits may depend on groundhog holes as good hiding places or for a winter home. So do some foxes, skunks, and raccoons.
Moms give birth to approximately four young in early to mid-April. About a month later, the entire family crawls outside to sample some of the vegetation near the den.
They eat and sun and play as a family for about a month. After the kids leave home and establish their own territories, they no longer socialize. If you are very lucky, you may witness this play period. The youngsters don’t go home again.
When danger threatens, the groundhog sounds a loud, sharp whistle as a warning to the neighbors, thus the name whistle pig. Young groundhogs master this whistle by the time they are two months old.
At this exceptionally early age, they strike out on their own. They don’t strike far, however, only from 100 to 1,000 feet, and they settle down to living life solo.
Soon the hills are alive with the sound of whistling woodchucks sitting on clean piles of dirt at the front doors of their new digs (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Most diurnal animals (those active during the daytime) are up and out by sunup. I have found it rare to see a groundhog above ground while the ground is still damp with dew. I have no scientific proof, only years of personal observation, but I don’t believe he likes to get his tummy wet.
Another observation: Groundhogs seem to have enough sense to get out of the rain and stay there.
So, on your next cruise through the pastoral countryside, keep one eye on the road, but let the other one do a little wildlife watching. Be on the lookout for the groundhog. He’ll be grazing by the road or sitting at his door watching you. He may even whistle at you.
Every February 2, this humble fellow becomes a celebrity for a day. Legend has it that if he sees his shadow on that day, he’ll sleep for six more weeks and we’ll be in for more winter weather. If he doesn’t spot his shadow, we can expect an early spring.
No groundhog is more celebrated for his weather prognostication than Punxsutawney Phil. February 2, 2017, will mark his 131st forecast. He comes out of his burrow on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to predict the weather for the rest of the winter.
According to the folks from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, Phil’s predictions are always 100 percent accurate. But they also claim that the same Punxsutawney Phil has been making predictions for 131 years, so …
The celebration of Groundhog Day reportedly began with Pennsylvania’s earliest settlers and is said to derive from their Candlemas Day festival and a legend that says, “For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May. For as the snow blows on Candlemas Day, so far will the sun shine before May.” In their home country of Germany, the settlers watched a badger for the shadow. In their adopted home of Pennsylvania, the groundhog became the replacement. The state’s first official celebration of Groundhog Day began on February 2, 1886.