Environment

Groundhog Day: The Weather-Predicting Woodchuck!

Groundhogs predict North American weather every February 2nd. But what do groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, do with the rest of their year?

posted on 01/30/2012
MikeDeHaan
Scribol Staff

Groundhog in Toronto, OntarioPhoto: Matt MacGillivray

Although the groundhog is also called a “woodchuck,” its scientific name is Marmota monax. In general, marmots are ground squirrels, living in burrows rather than trees. The marmots are related to tree squirrels, and all these animals are classed as rodents.

How Would You Describe a Groundhog?

A groundhog is one of the largest varieties of marmot. It may weigh over 13 Kg (30 pounds) just before going into hibernation, and can grow to about 60 cm in length.

It is covered with rather coarse fur, usually dark brown on its back and lighter chestnut or orange-brown underneath. Some even have grizzled, lighter hairs mixed into their fur.

Groundhogs look compact, thick or broad; this contrasts with slimmer tree-dwelling squirrels or prairie dogs.

Groundhog in New JerseyPhoto: slgckgc

Where Do Groundhogs Live?

Groundhogs are native to North America. Their territory includes eastern Alaska, much of Canada and the eastern United States (except for the most southerly regions).

Their preferred habitat is a field or pasture, with burrows generally found in dry, well-drained ground rather than swamps or soil containing heavy clay.

Groundhog near Strong Vincent Monument, PennsylvaniaPhoto: fauxto_digit

What Do Groundhogs Eat?

The pastures provide grass and wild flowers that woodchucks eat, coupled with the buds, bark and berries of shrubs. Groundhogs will even eat garden vegetables if they are available, and occasionally supplement their predominantly vegetarian diet with insects.

During the winter, groundhogs survive by using up their internal fat, rather than by eating stored food in the manner of their tree-dwelling cousins.

Groundhog in Ottawa, OntarioPhoto: joy_acharjee

What is the Life Cycle of the Groundhog?

Births are centred in the month of May. An average of four or five hairless and blind babies spend a month in the burrow. After four weeks, their eyes open so they can begin to explore the outdoors.

By August, the youngsters establish new burrows. Eventually they take over new territory, but many first settle near their birthplace.

By the middle of October most groundhogs are hibernating, losing up to one-third of their weight over the winter. They normally hibernate straight through Groundhog Day, emerging from their burrows sometime in March.

Generally groundhogs begin breeding a month before their second birthday, and can live up to about six years in the wild.

Males prefer to live alone, allowing the mothers to raise the children. Adults might live in close enough proximity to cooperate, defending territory and vocalizing alarm signals for their neighbours. However, if food is generally scarce, the population will happily disperse.

Groundhog Seeking SunshinePhoto: Liz West

Do Any Canadian Groundhogs Predict the Spring?

Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam makes the first Canadian prediction of spring, simply due to the time zone. In 2011, Shubenacadie Sam said spring would come soon.

In Ontario, the first Wiarton Willie began forecasting the weather in 1956, according to his Facebook page. But it’s not all harmony in the spring-predicting business — Alberta’s Balzac Billy has been known to disagree with the Eastern groundhogs from time to time.

Groundhog Eating Birdseed in OhioPhoto: scazon

Is the Groundhog an Endangered Species?

No! The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) classifies the groundhog as a species of “least concern”. The woodchuck is a common species, widespread throughout a large range.

Despite a variety of natural predators that include bears, bobcats, large birds of prey and weasels, the groundhog continues to thrive.

Groundhog in the GrassPhoto: Steve Baker

Sources: 1, 2

MikeDeHaan
Scribol Staff