Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks or whistle pigs, are a species of marmot that belongs to the ground squirrel family, along with chipmunks and prairie dogs. The species that we’re familiar with, Marmota monax, lives throughout the Midwest, from northern Georgia to northern Canada. The Algonquin (or possibly Narraganset) native tribes called them wuchuks, from which the modern name of woodchuck likely evolved.
Woodchucks are master excavators and live in underground burrows that can reach over 20 feet in length with multiple side tunnels and chambers, including a birthing chamber, a potty chamber and a hibernation chamber. Groundhogs build several entrances to their burrows to provide escape routes from predators.
Woodchucks don’t “chuck” wood, although they can climb trees. They primarily eat grass, clover, fruits and berries but like to graze in vegetable gardens and crop fields. They in turn are prey for coyotes, wolves, foxes and snakes. Dogs and humans are their archenemies.
Male groundhogs are the first ones to emerge in early February, when they have been observed wandering their home range (one to several acres in size) in search of female dens. After doing reconnaissance, they return to their burrow and hibernate until March, when they re-emerge to find a mate. In April, the female gives birth to up to eight helpless chucklings. The babies will stay with their mother until May or June, when they wander off to dig their own burrows.
Groundhogs are often unwelcome residents. Their burrows can destabilize the ground above them, causing foundation damage and holes that can cripple animals and damage farm equipment. They can be harassed away from their burrows only to return and re-excavate the area, often becoming a nuisance.
The legend of Groundhog’s Day is the story of an old European folk tradition being reinvented in this country. German folk legend held that animals, in particular badgers, could predict the weather. In the Pennsylvania-Dutch town of Punxsutawney, Pa., on Feb. 2, 1886, an imaginative local newspaper editor named Clymer Freas reported that a local groundhog (there being an absence of badgers) had seen his shadow, thus predicting six more weeks of winter. The tradition was born. Today, tens of thousands of people flood into Punxsutawney on Feb. 2 to witness Phil (a groundhog of much renown) predict the coming of spring. Although unreliable as a weather forecaster, Phil is a popular fellow. It is said he will live forever, and perhaps Groundhog’s Day will as well.
Sheryl Myers taught biology and environmental science for 34 years. She has worked as a naturalist for Anderson City Parks as well as Mounds State Park. Sheryl is a founding director of Heart of the River Coalition and founding board member of the Red-tail Land Conservancy.