Wild Ideas: The formidable, adaptable groundhog

The answer to “how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood” is “none.” The only relationship woodchucks have with trees is eating their bark.

The large, heavy-bodied subject of this tongue twister is instead thought to have gotten its name from the Algonquian word “wuchak,” which apparently applies to a variety of similar animals and has nothing to do with wood. Also called “earth pig,” “grass rat” and, in the Appalachian Mountains, “whistle pig” because of the whistling call it makes when alarmed, I grew up knowing it as “groundhog.”

In the marmot family of rodents, its scientific name is Marmota monax; momax means “digger.”

A groundhog keeps its eyes peeled for predators and it grazes. Its long, sharp claws help in digging the burrows where groundhogs sleep and raise their young. Photo by Matt Reinbold via Wikimedia Commons.
A groundhog keeps its eyes peeled for predators and it grazes. Its long, sharp claws help in digging the burrows where groundhogs sleep and raise their young. Photo by Matt Reinbold via Wikimedia Commons.

The groundhog is one of the few species to truly hibernate in Virginia. The males usually emerge by February or March to look for females, who are still in their dens. Once mated, the pair shares a den during the month-long gestation period, the male leaving just before the young are born. Generally larger than females, the males can measure up to about 27 inches and weigh 13 pounds.

Groundhogs are also known for being weather prognosticators. On Feb. 2 every year, a groundhog will come out of its burrow and, if it sees its shadow, winter weather will last for six more weeks; if no shadow, spring is on its way.

Okay, this is only folklore, and the origin is debatable. It appears to date back to early German settlers and wrapped up with religious ceremonies marking the seasons (Feb. 2 is halfway through winter). The observance of the groundhog’s emergence apparently evolved from an obscure ritual performed in the woods in Pennsylvania into a major event in the town of Punxsutawney, Pa. There prognosticating groundhog “Punxsutawney Phil” (actually a series of groundhogs given that name) has become a huge tourist attraction, drawing thousands of visitors and inspiring the movie comedy “Groundhog Day.”

Phil’s fans were undoubtedly shocked to see the headline of an article on the CNN website (cnn.com) recently: “Weather groundhog Phil ‘indicted,’ accused of lying as winter continues.” The indictment reads, “Punxsutawney Phil did purposely, and with prior calculation and design, cause people to believe that spring would come early,” according to the CNN article.

The instigator of the indictment was the prosecutor of Butler County, Ohio, Michael T. Gmoser, whose office apparently likes to go after scammers. He “is convinced that Phil is one and that he intentionally misled the nation.” At issue was the lousy winter weather, including a blizzard, that much of the eastern U.S. had experienced since Phil, or actually Phil’s shadow, had forecasted spring was on its way. The prosecutor was recommending the death penalty.

Not to worry. “It’s all in good fun,” the article’s writer, Ben Brumfield, finally admitted. Phil is safe, and his keepers were in on the joke.

While perhaps not reliable as prognosticators, groundhogs are skilled diggers, creating extensive dens underground. They also have excellent climbing and swimming skills, which they usually only demonstrate when escaping predators. Mostly, they eat, keeping a watchful eye out for predators, and sleep in their dens.

They are highly adaptable, inhabiting all but a few counties in Virginia and taking up residence in any open space, even in cities. While often ignored as they graze along the roadside, they can incur the wrath of gardeners and farmers because of their diverse, voracious diet, which includes grasses and other herbaceous plants along with fruits and the aforementioned tree bark.

When I lived in Reston, groundhogs were everywhere in my townhouse cluster, digging dens under decks and along the fairways of the golf course encircling it. The rodents loved the tasty buffet provided by the gardens that many of us had lovingly planted in our small yards and in the common areas. As I wrote in a recent column, one of my neighbors there waged war on squirrels for digging up her bulbs. Her other least-favorite animal was the groundhog. One fine spring day, she stormed over to my house fuming about one she had seen at the edge of her garden. It was casually sitting up on its haunches and gently taking a tulip blossom in its forepaws, bending it down to consume it.

Livestock growers are also generally not fans of groundhogs, since livestock can stumble into the holes rodents make and break their legs. The holes are also not kind to farm machinery.

Still, groundhogs are important to our ecosystems. As the species booklet from the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service (vafwis.org) notes, they serve as a food source for foxes, coyotes, hawks, snakes and even humans. Some species, including cottontails, opossums, raccoons, skunks, foxes and mice also make use of the burrows that groundhogs have abandoned.

Although groundhogs usually flee when threatened, a cornered one can be formidable, as my dog, Mai Coh, found out one day when she unexpectedly blundered onto a large mom near her burrow at the edge of some bushes. I saw the glint in the dog’s eyes. Groundhogs are one of the few animals that bring out blood lust in her, for some inexplicable reason. She was only inches from the rodent, who was fiercely baring her very long, very sharp incisors. I hastily caught the dog and hauled her off before fur started flying.

According to the Internet Movie Database, Bill Murray, the star of “Groundhog Day,” was bitten by the groundhog playing Punxsutawney Phil twice during the shooting of the film and had to have anti-rabies injections because the bites were so severe. Like all wildlife, these hefty rodents are better admired (or loathed) from a distance.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 275 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”