Everyone has been buzzing over the notorious groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, and the surprising and exciting news that he did not see his shadow and, as a result, we will have an early spring! While weather predictions from 100-year-old rodents should always be taken with grain of salt, it’s also a great excuse to learn more about these buck-toothed mammals.
Groundhogs are actually a large species of ground squirrel that is native to North America. Known by many names, they most frequently answer to groundhog or woodchuck. They typically grown to be just under two feet in length, and can weigh up to 15 pounds. Despite Punxsutawney Phil’s 132 years, the average groundhog only lives for two to three years in the wild. Being a larger rodent, their main predators are also larger animals: coyotes, dogs, foxes, and, of course, humans. In fact, due to the strain caused by agriculture and dairy production in Wisconsin, they were a protected species until 2017!
Surprising considering their stocky stature, they are strong swimmers and climbers, but prefer their underground burrows for escaping predators. Often solitary and very territorial, groundhogs will fight to protect their burrows. These burrows are used for everything from sleeping to rearing young. Communication between groundhogs is done through a variety of sounds, including whistles, squeals, barks and grinding noises. The whistles are predominantly used when the groundhog is alarmed or threatened. They can often be seen up on their hind legs, similar to prairie dogs and meerkats, to survey the area for danger.
Groundhogs are vegetarians by trade, but will eat bugs or baby birds if they come across them. Hibernation prep begins around June, and the groundhogs can double in weight, storing up fat reserves for the winter. Once the cold hits, they will hide away in their burrows to sleep the winter away. As such, it is in a groundhog’s best interest for winter to be shorter, so Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction track record might have caused some grumbling among his extended family!