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Zoo-ology column: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?

Feb. 5, 2012 at 11:03 p.m.
Updated Feb. 4, 2012 at 8:05 p.m.

Groundhogs can excavate hundreds of pounds of dirt and rock in a day.

By Judie Farnsworth

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Probably as much as it could find, if it ate wood. They actually eat mostly grasses and other vegetation, gorging binge style, throughout the summer. The fat reserves they build up have to last them through winter hibernation.

We commonly refer to these animals as groundhogs. In some areas they're known as whistle-pigs or land-beavers - they can excavate hundreds of pounds of dirt and rock in a day.

Even though the names are different, they're all the same animal. They're rodents and the largest members of a group of ground squirrels known as marmots. Although they can be a pesty problem to some farmers, they have been significant enough to have a day (and even a movie) named for them.

Groundhog Day, which was Thursday, has ancient origins in a religious festival known as Candlemas Day, when candles were blessed. In addition to religious importance, candles were a light source and people believed they protected against illness and starvation.

So, how does this relate to the groundhog? It started with German settlers in early Pennsylvania. Candlemas marked the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. Legend stated, "For as the sun shines on Candlemas Day, so far will the snow swirl in May."

A later version puts it this way, "When the cat lies in the sun in February, she will creep behind the stove in March."

In Germany, the badger was the animal shadow of choice, but it seems there were no shortages of groundhogs in Pennsylvania and the settlers were quite familiar with their comings and goings. The animal was declared the "most intelligent and sensible" animal to carry on their legend.

So, on the second of February, tradition states, if a groundhog appears and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. Keep those candles ready.

Although classified in a different genus, groundhogs, their behavior and lifestyle are very much like that of a prairie dog. They have long tunnels and intricate dens with several chambers below the frost line. They readily communicate, whistle warnings and are very social creatures. At around the first frost, they begin hibernation in family groups. After entering their burrow, they close it with stones, mud and feces.

Unlike prairie dogs, food isn't stored in a chamber. They survive on large fat reserves built up in their bodies during the spring and summer. They lose about half their body weight by February.

While hibernating, their bodies may be only a few degrees above freezing and their heart rate slows to 4 -5 beats a minute. Their sleep is so sound they may not wake if handled. Some may wake on occasion and a male may venture out to see what's what.

Groundhogs are capable swimmers and can climb trees when threatened.

The first official Groundhog Days were celebrated by Pennsylvania Germans in the 1800s. The groundhog of note was first called Br'er Groundhog but was renamed after King Philip. These days, in Punxatawney, Penn., thousands of people gather before dawn to await the prediction of "Phil." He's only right about 39 percent of the time but, hey, who cares? It's a party on a grand scale.

Sources: www.news.cornell.edu/chronicle/96/2.1.96/facts.html

animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/groundhog/

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groundhog

Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.

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