Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Happy Groundhog Day: The World Of Woodchucks


Researchers are still puzzling over the age-old question, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood,” but I may have an answer. Re-brand the woodchuck.

Like the words skunk and moose, woodchuck (wojak) is a Native American term, Algonquin in this case. I don’t know its literal translation, but I suspect it means “fat fur-ball that can inhale your garden faster than you can say Punxsutawney Phil,” or something pretty close to that.

Too bad that to English speakers the name woodchuck implies the critters are employed in the forest-products industry. They haven’t the teeth for chewing wood, nor do they have any use for wood in their burrows. (Exhaustive studies have concluded woodchuck dens aren’t paneled.)

Much as I respect the origin of “woodchuck,” I’m in favor of sticking to one of its other names, groundhog, which is more descriptive. Not only do these rotund herbivores reside underground, they’re such gluttons that I’m pretty sure even swine call them hogs. Tellingly, another moniker is “whistle-pig,” referring both to groundhogs’ warning call and their voracious appetites.

Native to most of North America from southern Alaska to Georgia, groundhogs are a type of rodent called a marmot. They’re related to other marmots and to ground squirrels out west, but in the northeast they have no close kin. Given what a marmot can eat, that’s a mercy.

They may be gluttons, but they’re not lazy. Groundhogs dig extensive burrows up to 5’ deep and 40’ long, each having two to five entrances. Supposedly, the average groundhog moves 35 cubic feet of soil excavating its burrow. (I’d like to know who measures these things.)

Mature groundhogs in wilderness areas typically measure 15-25” long and weigh 5-9 lbs. Given access to lush gardens or tasty alfalfa, though, they can reach 30” long and weigh as much as 30 lbs. Now that’s a ground hog. Needless to say, their habit of vacuuming up fields and gardens has given them a bad name in some circles.

Leaf rustling is bad enough, but this hole-digging hobby really riles farmers. Groundhog holes and soil piles can injure livestock, weaken foundations and damage equipment. Many a farmer trying to mow hay has cursed the groundhog when the haybine “finds” a soil pile. Hard to appreciate their cuteness while you replace cutterbar knives for the third time in a day.

True hibernators, groundhogs usually den up in October, their winter body temperature dropping to 50F and their heart slowing to a few beats per minute. Groundhogs might emerge in February in Pennsylvania, but up north you won’t find one blearily sniffing around for a mate that early. In the southern Adirondacks in late March I once saw a burrow entrance with a halo of dirt scattered on the snow from where the critter had recently burst out, a squint-eyed dust mop looking for love. Who knows if it went back in for a nap after seeing winter had not yet departed.

The notion that sun on February 2 means a late spring began in ancient Europe. That date marks the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox. Imbolc was supplanted by Candelmas as Christianity spread, but both traditions reference the “sunny equals more winter, and cloudy means spring” idea.

Mostly because Europe lacked groundhogs, Groundhog Day was invented in the New World, first popping up among Pennsylvania Germans in the mid-1800s. Though Punxsutawney Phil was the original prognosticating marmot, others like Wiarton Willie in Wiarton, Ontario, Jimmy the Groundhog in Sun Prairie, WI, and General Beauregard Lee of Lilburn, GA followed.
We know how much ground a groundhog can hog: a lot, especially if beans and peas are growing on said ground. I say we pull those researchers off the perennial Woodchuck-Chucking Quantification Project and have them find a way to ensure that Groundhog Day is overcast so we can get an early dismissal from winter.

Photo of Punxsutawney Phil by Aaron Silvers.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

3 Responses

  1. Bruce says:

    Great article Phil. I was once employed (maybe that’s the wrong term because I didn’t get paid) by local farmers to reduce the groundhog populations in their fields in Oswego County. I enjoyed the target practice and specialized in getting close with a .22 rimfire so I wouldn’t endanger livestock or people.

  2. Charlie S says:

    Groundhogs are such beautiful animals. They don’t mean to disrupt farmers they’re just trying to survive the way they know best. They were here first,then the farmers. John Burroughs the naturalist…he used to kill woodchucks also (lots of them) which really surprised me when I learned. To each his own I suppose but I could never kill an animal just because,especially beautiful woodchucks.They are a very impressive species. I would find ways to work around them. But that’s me mister different!.