Whether or not a groundhog can predict weather is questionable, but this animal has other characteristics that make it an interesting member of Missouri’s wildlife world.
This is the time of year when this well-known mammal becomes a newsmaker because of Groundhog Day on February 2. This, of course, is the annual tradition that if Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pa. sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If the day is cloudy, the subsequent weather is supposed to be mild.
It’s thought the Groundhog Day legend probably originated with German settlers who came to the Pennsylvania area in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the European folk tales these settlers likely brought with them was the belief that mammals like hedgehogs and badgers were weather prophets. Another belief brought from Europe was that if the sun shone on Candlemas Day – which was February 2 – it meant six more weeks of wintry weather. It seems these two bits of folklore became entwined over the years and by the late 1800s, Groundhog Day had become an annual event in the United States.
Moving from folklore to facts brings us to Marmota monax, the animal we commonly call the groundhog, woodchuck and sometimes, whistlepig. This relatively large rodent (usually five to 10 pounds) is yellowish-brown to brown in color. Groundhogs are essentially herbivores (plant eaters), eating the vegetative parts of plants. Favorite foods include grasses, forbs, clover, leaves of sassafras and other trees and numerous herbs. Groundhogs also have a taste for farm crops; especially alfalfa, planted clover, corn, oats and assorted fruits and vegetables.
When alarmed, a woodchuck gives a loud, shrill whistle (thus the name “whistlepig”). Groundhogs also grind their teeth or chatter when cornered.
A groundhog family has an underground burrow system often composed of several entrances, tunnels and chambers. The main entrance is frequently located beneath a tree stump or rock and is usually conspicuous because of a pile of freshly excavated dirt and rocks in front. These tunnels can be quite extensive, sometimes stretching more than 40 feet and including multiple side entrances and chambers. Here’s a totally worthless – yet interesting – groundhog fact that shows how extensive a groundhog’s burrow is and, at the same time, answers that age-old question: “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” If by “chucking wood” you mean moving wood, the answer is about 700 pounds. A biologist once measured the inside volume of a groundhog burrow and estimated that if a woodchuck would fill this space with wood, it would equal approximately 700 pounds.
One of the most fascinating traits of a groundhog is hibernation. Unlike some animals which merely go into stages of temporary inactivity in winter, groundhogs are true hibernators. In the fall (usually around October), groundhogs go into a torpid state in their underground burrows and rely solely on body fat to make it through the winter. During hibernation, a groundhog’s heartbeat slows from more than 100 beats per minute to as few as 15. Its body temperature drops to between 43 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit. While hibernating, a groundhog rolls itself into a ball and tucks its head between its hind legs.
Groundhogs instinctually know when to wake up, but actual emergence from their dens depends somewhat on weather. This emergence may take place as soon as early February, but if the weather is severely cold, they may not appear until the middle of the month.
Because of its digging and its appetite for garden vegetables and some agricultural crops, groundhogs can become pests for landowners. Missouri has a groundhog season that runs from the day after the close of spring turkey season through December 15. There is no bag limit or possession limit. For more information about groundhogs, or to control groundhog-related problems, contact your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or contact person.
Information about groundhogs can also be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at mdc.mo.gov.