“Now, Let’s See what is going on in Your Neck of the Woods”
By John Pollpeter, Lead Naturalist at Woodlands Nature Station
Patches of emerald-green blades from spring grasses outline a dusting of white winter snow, as a fuzzy sniffing nose emerges from the security and warmth of his underground burrow. Two bright brown eyes and a set of inquisitive whiskers search the February breeze for potential marauding predators and attractive mates. He is looking for female groundhogs.
Each February 2nd, Americans celebrate the potential for spring with a giant rodent, the groundhog. A member of the squirrel family, the groundhog is also known by woodchuck, whistle pig, or the eastern marmot. These large ground squirrels are celebrated for their weather predicting abilities.
How odd to have in our calendar mixed in with holidays honoring patriotism or religion, that we have a holiday devoted to a rodent we know little about? Or why the holiday even appears on the calendar? Do groundhogs have the ability to predict climatic shifts? Let’s dig a little deeper..
The United States is a country of immigrants. One of the largest groups of immigrants especially in the 19th century were Germans. In Northern Germany, they celebrated a holiday known as Candlemas. It was a combination of the last bit of Christmas and coming of spring. In Germany, they would often watch the hibernation habits of the hedgehog, an animal very closely related to shrews and moles.
When the German immigrants settled in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa they brought their traditions with them. Unfortunately, there were no hedgehogs to be found. They are strictly and Old World species. So the new arrivals adopted groundhogs, which were plentiful all over farm country. Groundhogs have a very similar winter pattern of hibernating around 4-5 months. Only the males emerge in early February to seek out females. The tradition could continue.
Of course, groundhogs can not predict the weather or even judge when a good time to come out. They use the position of the sun and the seasonal temperatures to determine, if it is safe to emerge. If the weather turns for the worse, back in the burrow until temperatures change.
Groundhogs are an open land species. They inhabit grasslands, savannas, farm fields, and park land. Prior to the steel plow, they were considered a keystone species for the prairie region. Their tough claws, large incisors, and bulky size allow them to bust through the thick mats of prairie grass roots creating homes for a number of prairie species. Animals like box turtles, cottontail rabbits, foxes, skunks, and snakes often find shelter in old or occupied groundhog dens. Like the woodpeckers in a forest, poking holes or cavities into trees that other wildlife may use. Groundhogs dotted the open landscape with burrows, creating habitat for other grassland species.
These sizable ground squirrels would disturb the choke-hold of prairie grasses creating open disturbed dirt that wildflowers like milkweed, coneflowers, and coreopsis could take root. In turn, these wild forbs would provide food and larval hosts for swallowtails and monarch butterflies. These diverse grasslands would provide more desirable grazing by bison and elk..
Some of these burrows can reach depths of 20 feet. Burrows usually contain several side rooms, a sleeping chamber lined with grasses and leaves, a bathroom, and a escape door. The burrow does go deep enough to escape the colder temperatures above. A place where the ground temperature stays between 45 and 55 degrees.
It is at this point where the groundhog hibernates for the winter. Being a true hibernator, the groundhog will eat all summer long putting on fat. In November, it will disappear under ground. Its body begins to shut down. Respiration, heart rate, digestion, and brain activity. Its body temperature drops from high 90’s to 50 degrees. Heart rate is only a few beats per minute. During the coldest times of the winter, its fat stores keep the minimum energy it needs to maintain a low body temperature and minimum life functions. The groundhog’s body converts the fat into life sustaining energy and muscle mass for the upcoming year. So by the time the male pops up in spring, he looks like a million bucks and is ready for swimsuit season!
Groundhogs are not social creatures like their cousin the prairie dogs. They may live in areas of other groundhogs, but do not share burrows. Groundhogs like all members of the squirrel family are herbivores and only eat plants. They have sharp eyes, sense of smell, and hearing. Their very tactile whiskers allow them to find their way in their dark dens. All these heightened senses come in handy as the groundhog has many predators from coyotes, bobcat, eagles to owls. All would love to have a plump little woodchuck. Never fear though, always alert the intrepid groundhog can swim, climb trees, and dig a burrow in seconds.
Just remember next February 2nd as they pull poor Punxsutawney Phil out of the log, all he wants to do is crawl back in bed to sleep for a few more weeks.
If you are wondering the Nature Station ‘s groundhog did not see his shadow so it will be an early Spring!
Come on by the Nature Station when we open March 2 to visit our very own Groundhog!