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The secret lives of groundhogs

Gerry Fischer:


 Feb. 2 is Groundhog Day, and I thought it would be fun to look behind the scene at the secret lives of Groundhogs. They are also known as Wood Chucks, Whistle Pigs, giant ground squirrels, and several farmer friends have given me some new names I can’t print here. They are the largest species of ground squirrels, the same group as the chipmunk.

 The mature Groundhog is between 18 inches and 24 inches long from nose to rump, and sports a tail between 7 and 10 inches long. The adult Groundhog weighs about 13 pounds, or twice the weight of an average newborn baby. They are herbivores, and eat only vegetables, fruit and other vegetation. They often build entrances and tunnels nearby their main source of food. They also dig 18 to 20-foot tunnels, six feet deep, intersecting the main tunnel with openings at each end. A typical burrow will have four to 12 entrances. Unlike many burrowing animals, they are unique in the fact that they have summer and winter homes. During the hottest summer months their homes are in the woods where they are cooler, but in winter they live in or near the fields. They have elaborate homes, and are among the most unique architects. Being solitary animals, both male and females have burrows. To one side of their tunnels, depending on the groundhog, he or she digs one or more bathrooms off the main tunnel, where they take care of business without having to leave the burrow.

 They also build beds. These beds are located off the main tunnel or a widened part of it and they carry in wild grasses for a mattress. Periodically they change out the grass and remake the beds. If you see a groundhog standing on his or her hind legs, they look like little bears, and are usually 50 feet or less from a burrow entrance.

 Groundhogs range from coast to coast and from Canada south to Arkansas and Louisiana. According to the environmentalists Groundhogs are listed as the least concerned animal for extinction. They live up to six years in the wild, but due to predators two to three years is more common. In captivity they may live to be 14 years old.

 In early Christianity the Groundhog (Hedgehog), got the reputation of prognosticating the weather due to Candlemas falling on February 2nd. If the sky was clear a shadow would be cast, it was believed there would be snow until May. This tradition morphed into the Hedgehog seeing his shadow meaning six more weeks of winter. Colonists brought that notion here.

 Being solitary animals poses a problem. Each year they are strangers to each other. In February the males come out of hibernation, and begin looking for female burrows. These can be recognized because they are meat, very clean, and they smell good. When a male finds a female burrow, he just runs on in and introduces himself. He introduces himself to a lot of females, hoping one of them find him attractive. In the spring Groundhogs marry and 32 days later 6 hairless, blind Groundhogs are born. In three months, they are fully developed.