Groundhog in typical "stand alert' posture
© Erin Silversmith
Next week brings Groundhog Day and A LOT of media attention. We’ve received a number of inquiries about this furry, kind-of-cute rodent from readers.
Groundhogs clearly aren’t related to pigs or hogs—so what exactly are they?
The groundhog (also known as a woodchuck or Eastern Marmot) is actually a large, ground-dwelling rodent and is part of family of ground squirrels known as marmots.
Groundhogs are lowland creatures and are common in the northeastern and central United States, found as far north as eastern Alaska and south as the northern half of Alabama. (see range map to right).
If you live in the western U.S., particularly in rocky and mountainous areas, you’re probably familiar with the the groundhog’s cousins such as the yellow-bellied and hoary marmots.
Can They Really Chuck Wood?
The name that many use for the animal, “woodchuck”, is derived from the Native American Algonquian tribe’s name for the animal, “wuchak”.
So despite the tounge-twister we’ve all heard (as well as that GEICO ad a year or two back!), it’s name has nothing to do with throwing around pieces of wood, even though it’s a great image….
These busy rodents are great diggers and hikers can often find their dens by looking for disturbed earth. Their short, powerful limbs and curved, thick claws are ideally suited for digging the extensive excavations they are known to create.
Groundhogs have two coats of fur—a dense grey undercoat that is then covered by a longer coat of banded guard hairs, which provide its distinctive “frosted” appearance.
They are good swimmers and excellent tree climbers and can do both while escaping predators. When threatened, groundhogs generally retreat to their burrows but the animal can tenaciously defend itself or its burrow using its two large incisors and front claws. That said, groundhogs are pretty easy prey for predators such as coyotes, foxes, bears and even large raptors. Young groundhogs are also preyed upon by snakes.
What Do Groundhogs Eat?
Groundhogs are mostly herbivorous, consuming wild grasses and other vegetation such as berries and agricultural crops. On occasion, they’ll also eat grubs, insects, snails and similar small animals. Groundhogs don’t need open water to drink and can hydrate themselves by consuming leafy vegetation.
Individuals often “stand alert” in an erect posture on their hind legs when not actively feeding. This is a commonly seen behavior and easily observed.
So How Can They Predict The End Of Winter?
Unlike many rodents, groundhogs are true hibernators and are rarely, if ever, active or seen during the winter. They often build a separate “winter burrow”, which extends below the frost line and stays at a steady temperature year round, allowing the animal to avoid freezing during the winter’s cold months.
It’s this trait of sleeping through the winter that led to the folklore that a groundhog’s behavior can predict when winter will end.
Since a groundhog sleeps through the entire winter, the reasoning is that the winter must be ending if he’s willing to stay out and about once he or she has been awakened on February 2nd.
It’‘s a pretty shaky premise and the poor creature is probably so dazed from being rudely awakened that he has no idea what the temperature is.
How Accurate Are A Groundhog’s Predictions?
Groundhogs are among our longest hibernators, often settling down as early as October and remaining in their burrow until March or April.
So no matter what our furry prognosticators may appear to tell us on Groundhog Day, it’s a pretty safe bet that just want to go back to sleep, regardless of the weather!
Here at eNature’s offices in the mid-Atlantic, we often see groundhogs come spring— along roadsides, in gardens and even in city parks. Have you encountered any?
As always, we enjoy your stories