The groundhog’s claim to fame

The groundhog’s claim to fame

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

Frequently during the warm months of the year, I notice a large, clumsy rodent making his way through the wooded area in the rear of my residence in Loves Park. Apparently, this groundhog, or woodchuck, the largest member of the ground squirrel family, has set up permanent housekeeping in my backyard, but when late fall arrives, he always disappears, not to be seen again until the following spring.

The groundhog is a true hibernator, and in late October or early November in our area, it closes off the entrance to its burrow and goes into a state of suspended animation for several months. While it is hibernating, its metabolism is greatly reduced, and it utilizes the excess fat it started storing in its tissues in August and September to sustain life.

The groundhog is numerous throughout Illinois but is more plentiful where its favorite habitat is found. It prefers a rolling, grassy environment and tends to avoid areas that may be subject to flooding. Abandoned strip-mine areas that have become grassed over are ideal for groundhogs, but its burrows will also be found in a variety of other habitats: brushy or weedy areas on rocky or rolling land, timber edges and along fence rows or earth fills, railway embankments, retaining walls, or earthen dams.

The noted biologist R. Kennicot, in 1857, reported the woodchuck or groundhog was quite rare in northeastern Illinois, but seemed to be becoming more common. The removal of much of the timber was undoubtedly responsible for this increase.

In my opinion, this large rodent (it may attain a weight of up to 14 pounds) is an unattractive animal. But who am I to judge the attractiveness of one species as compared to another? I am sure a female groundhog finds a male groundhog very attractive at certain seasons of the year and vice versa?

Groundhogs are almost totally vegetarian in their diet and have raised the ire of humans when they sometimes invade vegetable garden plots. Many classify the groundhog as a destructive animal, and groundhog hunting, “varmint shooting,” is a popular sport among some “sportsmen” in certain areas. In the past, some counties in Illinois have paid bounties for the scalps of groundhogs. For example, during the period from March 1944 to March 1949, Fulton County paid bounties on 12,616 scalps or an average of 2,523 per year.

The groundhog’s greatest claim to fame is its supposed ability to predict the weather. Legend has it that on Feb. 2 of each year, the animal emerges from his burrow and observes the weather conditions. If the sun is shining and he sees his shadow, this tells him there will be six more weeks of cold weather, so he returns to his burrow for an additional period of hibernation. On the other hand, if it is cloudy on Feb. 2, this sends the signal to him that spring is not long in arriving, so he re-enters the outside world. The first part of February is usually quite cold in the northern and central United States, and it is improbable that any self-respecting groundhog would awaken from his deep sleep and venture out from his snug burrow when the temperature is near or below freezing.

The most famous groundhog of all is Punxsutawney Phil of the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Each year at exactly 7:25 a.m. on Feb. 2, Phil is unceremoniously yanked from his artificially heated burrow by town officials to make his annual prognostication. Media coverage is extensive, and Phil has become a national celebrity. It is not surprising that Phil’s predictions are correct about 50 percent of the time.

Groundhog Day evolved from the celebration of Candlemas Day in Europe. This day was midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Blessed candles were placed in windows on the eve of Candlemas Day in the hope that the next day would be cloudy, which was believed to indicate there would be an early spring.

Somehow, the groundhog replaced the candle when early German settlers came to Pennsylvania. The Delaware Indians first settled the region around Punxsatawney and revered the groundhog. They believed their ancestors were animals that began life in “Mother Earth” and emerged later as men. This belief probably influenced the early Europeans in their substitution of the rodent for a candle.

The earliest reference to Groundhog Day can be found in a storekeeper’s diary at the Pennsylvania Center for Dutch Folklore at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania: “4 February, 1841—Last Tuesday was Candlemas Day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters, and if he sees his shadow, he pops back for another six weeks’ nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

I think I will put my trust in the annual, long-range weather prediction of the “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” rather than in the behavior of Punxsutawney Phil.

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