In Honour of Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is here, and what better way to celebrate than to share some of my favourite photos of these wonderful creatures?

Everyone knows the story: that on the second day of February, the groundhog (or woodchuck) awakens from his long winter sleep and comes out of his den. If he sees his shadow, he will return to his den and resume hibernating, and winter will last for six more weeks. If he does not see his shadow, he will leave the den and spring will come early. Not only does this legend have no basis in fact, the groundhog’s predictions are only accurate about 40% of the time! Still, Groundhog Day provides a much-welcome diversion in the middle of winter, and reminds us that the seemingly endless days of cold Arctic winds, six-foot tall snowdrifts, ice, slush, and skin-numbing, lung-crushing, nostril-freezing cold are coming to an end.

Here in Ottawa, most groundhogs do not come out of hibernation until mid-March. I usually see them by the first day of spring most years; this fellow was photographed on March 11, 2007.

Groundhog in snow

First groundhog of spring

Groundhog Day has its roots in Candlemas, celebrated on February 2nd in northern and western Europe. An old Scottish poem states:

As the light grows longer
The cold grows stronger
If Candlemas be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
If Candlemas be cloud and snow
Winter will be gone and not come again
A farmer should on Candlemas day
Have half his corn and half his hay

In European countries, hedgehogs, bears, badgers and even snakes were used to divine the future; in Texas, they use the armadillo. In retrospect, I think the Europeans who settled in eastern North America showed a lot of wisdom in choosing the groundhog as their shadow-seeking mascot.

Groundhog in spring

Groundhog in spring

Groundhogs are widely distributed in North America, with a large portion of their range occurring in the east; they are found from northern Quebec and Ontario to Alabama and Georgia in the southern United States. They live in open areas such as fields, clearings, open forests, and rocky slopes, and usually dig their burrows in areas where grasses and other short-growing plants provide food. They tend to avoid damp or swampy areas.

A big stretch after emerging from hibernation

A member of the rodent family (Order Rodentia), the scientific name of the groundhog is Marmota monax: monax meaning “digger” and marmota meaning “mountain mouse”. In North America, the only rodents that are larger than groundhogs are beavers and porcupines.

Groundhog posing

Groundhogs are stocky mammals with a flattened head, heavyset body, and short legs. Their coarse fur is dark, usually reddish, yellow or dark brown, although black groundhogs and albinos are not unheard of. They have a short tail and small, teddy-bear ears. Their feet are black, as are their eyes. Because groundhogs are burrowing mammals, their legs are thick and strong and their forefeet, the principal ones used for digging, each have well-developed claws. Like most other rodents, their teeth keep growing and if they do not chew, the teeth will grow out of proportion.

Groundhog with yellowish fur

Groundhog showing his claws

Groundhogs are mainly vegetarians and prefer to eat fresh green vegetation including clover, alfalfa, dandelions and, if available, garden vegetables.  Other foods eaten by groundhogs include fruit, vegetables, snails and insects on rare occasions, and birds’ eggs or nestlings they come upon by accident. Early in spring they eat bark and small branches.

Groundhog foraging

The groundhog is the most important hole-digging mammal in eastern North America and typically has two burrows: a shallow one, used in the summer, which is often located in the middle of pastures and meadows; and a deeper one, usually located nearby in a woody or brushy area, used only for wintering. Winter burrows may be separate from or part of the groundhog’s main burrow system and are deep enough to be located below the frost line.  The burrows tend to be very clean and have several entrances. The main entrance usually has a vertical drop of more than two feet so the groundhog can quickly escape from predators; as the groundhog’s top running speed does not exceed 15 km per hour, it cannot out-run its enemies and relies upon its den for protection. They may also avoid predators by climbing trees. Burrows also have one or more “spyholes” where they watch for enemies, and separate toilet and nesting chambers. The nesting chamber is made of dry grass and is used for sleeping, hibernation, and as a nursery.

Groundhog emerging from burrow

Although most people don’t appreciate the holes that groundhogs leave behind, they are beneficial to all sorts of animals for the shelter they provide. Some animals which use abandoned groundhog burrows are rabbits, skunks, raccoons, foxes, weasels, ground squirrels, river otters, chipmunks, voles, shrews, mice, lizards, snakes, and arthropods. Many of these animals are beneficial to humans in turn because of the large quantities of farm pests, such as rats, mice and insects, they consume.

Groundhogs are generally solitary animals except during the breeding season, which occurs shortly after emergence from hibernation in the spring.  Males may have multiple mates per season; after a gestation period of 31 to 32 days, females give birth to 1 to 9 offspring, with most litters ranging between 3 and 5 pups. Weaning occurs around 44 days old, and pups become independent around two months old.  During this time the female provides all of the care for her young.

Mother and offspring

The groundhog is one of Canada’s largest true hibernators. In order to prepare for its long winter sleep, the groundhog spends most of the summer eating so it can put on enough weight to survive. Hibernation begins early in the fall, with the onset of freezing weather in late September. By October all groundhogs have retreated to their dens underground.  There they will spend the winter in a deep, comatose sleep.  Their metabolism slows down greatly, which allows the accumulated body fat to last the winter. Body temperature may drop to 3°C (just above freezing); the breathing rate slows to about one breath every five to six minutes; and the heartbeat will drop from around 80 beats per minute to only four or five.  Groundhogs are the subject of a great deal of medical research, which includes their ability to lower their body temperature, reduce their heart rate, and reduce their oxygen consumption. Other biomedical research involving groundhogs includes studies on hepatitis B, metabolic function, obesity, energy balance, the endocrine system, reproduction, neurology, cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, and neoplastic disease.

Groundhog drinking water

Males emerge from hibernation earlier than females in order to establish territories, dominance hierarchies, and to search for mates. They generally still have a good deal of body fat left, which is necessary because there is little food available in mid-March. Some animals may have to dig their way up through snow to reach daylight.

Groundhog outside his den

Because of their abundance and broad geographic range, groundhogs are listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  Groundhogs may live 4 to 6 years in the wild but, due to predation and disease, often do not live past age 3. They may live up to 10 years in captivity.  Enemies include carnivores such as bears, wolves, lynx, bobcats, and cougars; however, in the predominantly agricultural landscape where most groundhogs live, the principal predators are foxes, coyotes, and dogs.  Groundhogs can be surprisingly fierce and determined fighters when their lives are threatened, and they would probably be a match for any fox that was unable to take them wholly by surprise. There are many records of groundhogs holding a dog the size of a collie at bay and driving it off.

Groundhog on the alert

Not surprisingly, humans are another enemy of the groundhog.  They are often considered to be pests by farmers because of the vegetation that they eat, and because of the burrows they dig. Such views are inevitably short-sighted and overlook the benefits of having groundhogs around. Not only do they aerate the soil with their digging, they help to fertilize it by defecating in their burrows.

Groundhogs are one of the few remaining wild animals that can easily be found in the city, thus providing a much-needed link with nature.  Look for them in city parks and green spaces, along roadsides with grassy verges, and in opens fields or pastures where some shelter exists.

Groundhog posing: take 2

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