A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors : The groundhog celebrated in folklore/hunted as a varmint because of crop damage

The groundhog (Marmota monax), a.k.a. the woodchuck, is celebrated in folklore as a weather prognosticator.

Every February 2nd America’s most most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, delivers his annual prediction for the beginning of warm weather from Gobbler’s Knob, a hill outside of Punxsutawney, Pa., a small town 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

The groundhog is a member of family Sciuridae, which includes tree squirrels, small ground squirrels, and large ground squirrels called marmots (photos provided).

Groundhog Day, which dates back to the 1880s, originated with the German-speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.

But many rural landowners and farmers consider the woodchuck a varmint, so this native mammal is widely hunted for food and sport.

Groundhogs damage farm crops, such as tender young corn or soy bean plants, and stands of forage (clover and alfalfa). In rural subdivisions, they sometimes chow out on garden vegetables and flowers, to the dismay of homeowners.

Groundhogs may be hunted statewide, year-round in Kentucky, with no bag limit. A hunting license is required unless the hunter is license exempt. Shooting hours are 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset.

When properly prepared, the woodchuck is considered a delicacy. The meat is tough because these critters are very muscular. Therefore it’s best to start with a slow cooker. One recommendation is to cut up the woodchuck (bone in), and cook it under water or broth with vegetables (carrots, celery, and onions, typically) until the meat falls off the bone. Usually that takes 20 to 24 hours in the slow cooker on low heat.

Then the meat can be pulled off the bone and used in chili, stews, tacos or even woodchuck salad, prepared with a chicken salad recipe, and served on homemade bread with fresh lettuce from the garden.

The groundhog’s tunnel digging prowess is extraordinary.

Researchers studying groundhog dens were amazed to discover some as long as 24 feet, extending about four feet deep, with the amount of soil dug out measuring more than eight bushels, weighing hundreds of pounds. This “recycling” ultimately benefits soil fertility.

While the groundhog’s digging behavior may be a hazard to livestock and farm equipment, it benefits other species of wildlife. Groundhog burrows, which extend below the frost line, are used by foxes, cottontail rabbits and other wildlife to escape severe winter cold and snow.

A humorous tongue-twisting riddle asks the question:

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

The answer is, of course: A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could if a woodchuck could chuck wood!

Range and Distribution

Woodchucks have two coats of fur, a dense grey undercoat and a longer coat of banded guard hairs that give the distinctive “frosted” appearance.

The groundhog is a member of family Sciuridae,  which includes tree squirrels, small ground squirrels, and large ground squirrels called marmots.

The yellow-bellied marmot and the hoary marmot live in rocky, mountainous areas, but groundhogs live in lowlands and are widely distributed throughout North America. They are common in the northeastern and central U.S., and Canada.

Description

Where high quality food, and fewer predators are present, groundhogs can grow more than 25 inches in length, weighing up to 30 pounds.

Groundhogs are well adapted for digging, with short, powerful limbs and curved, thick claws. Their tails are usually about one-fourth of their body length.

They have two coats of fur, a dense grey undercoat and a longer coat of banded guard hairs that give the distinctive “frosted” appearance.

Habitat

The groundhog prefers open country, with burrow entrances usually located on the edges of woodlands.

Groundhogs use burrows for sleeping, rearing young, and hibernating, and they provide safety and a place to retreat during bad weather.

Several groundhogs may occupy the same burrow.

Burrows usually have two to five entrances, providing groundhogs several escape routes.

Groundhogs are one of the few species that enter into true hibernation, and often excavate a separate “winter burrow.”

This burrow is usually in a wooded or brushy area and is dug deep enough so that there’s a stable temperature well above freezing during the winter months.

In most areas, groundhogs hibernate from October to late March or April, but in more temperate areas, they may hibernate for as little as three months.

To survive the winter, they gorge themselves in the fall, like a bear, to reach their maximum weight shortly before entering hibernation. They emerge from hibernation with some remaining body fat to live on until warming spring weather sprouts greening grasses and clovers.

Groundhogs are most active early in the morning or late in the afternoon.

Groundhogs damage farm crops, such as tender young corn or soy bean plants, and stands of forage (clover and alfalfa). In rural subdivisions, they sometimes chow out on garden vegetables and flowers.

Food Habits

Groundhogs eat primarily wild grasses, and other green vegetation, also berries and agricultural crops, if available.

Clover, alfalfa, dandelion, and coltsfoot, a wild flower in the daisy family, are among the groundhog’s favorite foods. They sometimes consume grubs, grasshoppers and snails, but not as often as squirrels.

Breeding and Reproduction

Groundhogs have a reproductive rate that compensates somewhat for their high mortality.

Usually groundhogs breed in their second year, with the breeding season starting in March or April, after hibernation.

A mated pair remains in the same den throughout the 30-day gestation period. One litter is produced annually, usually containing two to six kits, born blind and hairless.

As the birth of the young approaches, the male leaves the den. Groundhog mothers introduce their young to the world above ground once their fur has grown in and they can see. At this time, the male groundhog comes back to the family to help “train” their young.

By the end of August, the family breaks up, and the young seek out new territories, usually nearby.

Predation

There is anecdotal evidence that groundhogs were more numerous in Kentucky prior to the late 1970s, when coyotes first   began to be more common across the state.

Other common predators in Kentucky include: foxes, bobcats, bears and domestic dogs.

It’s not uncommon to see road killed groundhogs, especially in the spring when they move around more in search of food and mates.

Groundhogs often climb trees to escape predators. They can stand motionlessly, when alerted to danger, and may whistle to warn other groundhogs when alarmed, hence the common name “whistle pig.” They are also accomplished swimmers.

Groundhogs can see well enough to detect movement and have a sense of smell that helps them detect predators.

They prefer to retreat to their burrows when threatened. If their burrow is invaded, the groundhog tenaciously defends itself by baring its two large incisors and flashing its front claws.

As warm weather stabilizes, and groundhogs emerge from hibernation, it’s a sure sign that spring has sprung.

 Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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