Groundhogs have an interesting history

Have you ever heard of a day set aside for the opossum, raccoon, squirrel or fox? Well, neither have I, and I find it strange that there is so much excitement, on one day each year surrounding the groundhog.

The legend of Groundhog Day is likely due to the fact that woodchucks often re-enter hibernation after prematurely emerging from their dens. This is especially true in the case of Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog, who is rudely awakened from hibernation every year on the second of February to determine whether or not he will see his shadow.

The second of February is exactly forty days after Christmas. On this date, The Law of Moses prescribed that a Jewish mother’s first born son belongs to God, and after his birth must be presented at the temple to be redeemed with an offering. This Holy Day is known to many Christians as the “Presentation of the Lord in the Temple.”

Rural folk celebrated the second of February as Candlemas Day, a day on which short candles were melted down and new candles molded. Of course, the second of February is the halfway point between the first day of winter and the first day of spring.

On March 20, we will reach the March equinox (aka spring equinox or vernal equinox). The spring equinox occurs when the Sun crosses the equator heading north in the sky. This event marks the start of spring in the northern half of the globe. After this date, the Northern Hemisphere begins tilting more toward the Sun, with daylight hours increasing and also warmer temperatures.

The names of the woodchuck and groundhog are used interchangeably. The standard term for groundhog was grun’daks, from the German word dachs. The Pennsylvania Dutch living in the Allentown area had grundsow for the name woodchuck; in Lebanon County, the groundhog was known as Grundsaudag, and in Northampton County, the groundhog was called Daxdaag.

When a woodchuck becomes alarmed, a loud whistle is sometimes given; hence, the animal was also known as a whistle pig. A few Native American tribes called the groundhog a wuchak, which meant the digger. This name was corrupted by the English to woodchuck. Other tribes called the groundhog the monax, which also meant digger, giving the scientific name of Marmont monax. Woodchucks belong to the order Rodentia (rodents) and the family Sciuridae (squirrels).

Why do woodchucks come out of hibernation so early? One needs only to look around to notice that at this time there is nothing for a woodchuck to eat. There is no green, lush vegetation available to a woodchuck at the beginning of March. Well, the answer is simply that he is looking for a mate.

You are probably wondering what the woodchuck will survive on for the next four weeks? That is how long until vegetation starts to green up and food will be available. One would think a woodchuck would starve to death during that time. However, during this period, the woodchuck will live off its body fat.

During the winter, hibernation slows down all body functions. The body temperature drops from 90 degrees to approximately 40 degrees; the heartbeat slows from 100 beats per minute to approximately four beats per minute, and the breathing slows to a shallow breath once every four to six minutes. The chuck’s teeth and claws will not grow while in hibernation. During hibernation, a small amount of body fat and very little weight is lost. The woodchuck actually uses most of its fat during March when coming out of hibernation. A woodchuck can lose up to two pounds during the next four weeks.

Now, let’s get back to the mating. I wrote that the male is first to come out of hibernation. First on his agenda is to look for a mate. When a den is found he can tell by smell whether it is occupied by a male or a female. Once a female is found and accepts him, the male will move into her den.

Unlike many other species of wildlife, there is very little fighting done over females. The males simply keep looking until they find an unattached female. Before the young are born, the females will drive the males from the dens. This spring when one woodchuck is seen chasing another woodchuck, it’s a good bet this is a female making sure the male stays away from her den.

After being driven off, the male could try to find another female; however, it is unlikely that he will be able to find another unmated female since most females have already been bred. The gestation period is 28 days. Four or five young will be born blind, hairless and helpless. The young cubs will be approximately four inches long and weigh about one ounce. At six weeks of age, the cubs will begin to get teeth. At this time, the female will wean her cubs, which would weigh about half a pound.

The female woodchuck is one of the best mothers in the world. She teaches the youngsters everything they need to know, such as what types of food to eat; how to dig a burrow and how to detect danger. The family stays together until mid-June and then the family unit breaks up.

At the present time the woodchuck population is low and I have been unable to find the reason for this decline. As the song goes, “Summer time and the livin is easy;” however, to a young woodchuck, on its own for the first time, life is hazardous. In the fall, the woodchuck’s life will become much easier.


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