text and photo : Norma A. Hubbard (April 2016)
Two summers ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see a rather small groundhog (Marmota monax) in my backyard. It was just resting on the patio stones and when I approached, it slowly moved away, but not without tasting a few flowers before leaving.
Usually we see groundhogs on the ground, but they can climb trees, which makes sense because groundhogs are the largest member of the squirrel family. They can also swim, so sometimes they are called land-beavers. Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks. There is an old tonguetwister about woodchucks: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” It is right when is states “if” because they do not ‘chuck wood’ at all! So while it is clear that groundhogs don’t chuck wood, it is unclear from where this name is derived; it is thought that it may be a mispronunciation of a Native American word, such as wejack, woodshaw, wuchak, or woodchoock – but no one seems to know for certain.
Regardless of what we might called them, most of us know of groundhogs due to Groundhog Day, celebrated on February 2nd each year. While there are a few famous groundhogs -Punxsutawney Phil, Wiarton Willie and Shubenacadie Sammost groundhogs enjoy very quiet, solitary lives. In fact, except for a brief time in the spring when males and females mate, they pretty much ignore each other.
In early spring, female groundhogs can have up to 6 kits in a litter, however by summer’s end, young groundhogs will leave their mothers to be on their own. The average adult groundhog weighs about 6 kg (13 lbs) with a body length of 45 to 61 cm (17-24 in), but this does not include its tail of 18 to 25 cm (7-9.75 in). Groundhogs dig incredible burrows; a burrow can be from 2 meters to 20 meters long. Most burrows have multiple exits and several chambers, and apparently they often keep one chamber for bathroom use only.
Groundhogs are herbivores, which makes them very unwelcome rodents in most gardens – especially vegetable gardens. They are quite selective and will eat the best of the crops! They can eat the equivalent of a third of their own weight each day. Groundhogs spend all summer eating, fattening up in preparation for winter hibernation. After the first frost in the fall, groundhogs head into their burrows for the winter. Groundhogs are ‘true’ hibernators, which means they go into a deep sleep, their heart rates slows (only 5 beats/minute), and their body temperatures drops (about 50C) which is just above a burrow’s temperature in winter. So we can imagine how rude an awakening it is when famous groundhogs are pulled from their burrows each February! And just in case you were wondering, Groundhog Day this year had two out the three of our famous groundhogs predicting an early spring.
Source: National Geographic [online]