The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Outdoors

March 29, 2014

Focus on Wildlife: Groundhogs

— “How much wood, would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? A woodchuck would chuck all the wood that he could, if woodchuck could chuck wood!”

Even in this popular children’s tongue twister, it seems that groundhogs — also known as woodchucks and whistle pigs — have a commonality with the famous Caddyshack duffer, Rodney Dangerfield: “They get no respect.”

Often portrayed as cute, cuddly, adorable and a bit ornery, in cartoons, movies and television commercials, groundhogs are typically shown as dim witted.  

Even the world’s most-famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, gets to the annual embarrassment of being plucked from his den.

What’s more, he’s pulled out at a time when any self-respecting groundhog would be in the midst of his deep mid-winter hibernation.

Then, with bright camera lights blinding his sleepy eyes, while surrounded by thousands of dazed and mostly drunk admirers, he’s expected to make a spot-on weather prognostication.  

This type of predicament wouldn’t be good for anyone’s respect or reputation.

Groundhogs are game animals that are members of the order Rodentia (rodents) and the family Sciuridae (squirrels). They are closely related to squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs and marmots.  

These mammals are burrow dwellers, which dig holes that help to aerate the soil while providing life-saving “escape hatches” for other animals.

However, groundhogs tend to burrow vertical holes as the entrances to their dens that can be very dangerous for farm animals, and damaging to tractors and other machinery.

Therefore, they have been classified as a “valuable nuisance” by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. This classification is reflected in the lack of any daily bag limit and an open season on groundhog hunting.  

In fact, the only groundhog season restrictions are no Sunday hunting and they go out of season very briefly, during the regular firearms deer season.  Their conservation status is listed as: Least Concern.

Groundhogs grow to 20-26 inches long and weigh an average of 5 to 10 pounds.  Phil, that famous groundhog from Punxsutawney, is way off the growth charts. According to ask.com, he weighs in at 20 pounds.

Woodchucks tend not to venture far from their natal homes. Most limit their movements and travels to not more than a half-mile from where they were born.  

Groundhogs hibernate during the winter. They spend summer and early fall eating continuously, accumulating the body fat that will sustain them through the winter.

Hibernating groundhogs go into a deep, dormant sleep with their metabolic processes significantly slowed and their body temperatures lowered.  Males emerge first from this hibernation. By now, nearly all groundhogs have completed their hibernation and are mating.

My fellow outdoor writer, Ken Maurer, wrote a humorous piece a few weeks ago about spotting a groundhog that had recently completed his hibernation.  

In his piece titled “Thawing Out,” Ken said he saw his first groundhog of the season and that, “I swear he was squinting.”  

As it turns out, when male groundhogs emerge from hibernation, their first impulse is to stake out their territory and prepare for mating. In other words, they’re hankering for a fight with any other freshly-emerged male that might have designs on mating with their “women.”  

Maybe that groundhog that Ken spotted was not squinting to adjust his eyes to the sunlight, but he had the squint of a prize fighter about to enter the ring?

Baby groundhogs are called pups or kits and they gestate in just 28 days.  Most litters of pups will be born in the next few weeks.  

These litters average three to four young, who are born blind, hairless and for the most part helpless.  In just one month they will grow rapidly and will be ready to leave their underground homes.  By the time the warmth of summer arrives, they will be begin to establish their own territories.

Marmota monax is a groundhog’s scientific name.  

Their more common name — woodchuck — is derived from their Algonquian word for them: “wejack.”  This word is likely related to the “jack-jack” or “chuck-chuck” sound that groundhogs make while eating.

The “whistle pig” nickname may come from their habit of making a sharp, high-pitched sound or whistle as an alarm call.  

As for the word “groundhog,” it seems to come from the action that they make while digging or “hogging” their dens into the ground.

Email comments to garrettoutdoors@gmail.com

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