As much I enjoy folklore, legends and traditions, especially ones that have roots here in Pennsylvania, I find Groundhog Day and all the hoopla surrounding it a complete waste of time.
That's why I groaned out loud last Thursday morning when I woke up and turned on one of the news channels just in time for the live feed from Punxsutawney where that town's overly famous rodent promptly predicted six more weeks of winter. Or at least that is what the joker wearing a top hat who held the dazed-looking animal in a stranglehold said the groundhog said. Sorry, folks, I just don't get it.
For that reason, a few facts and basic information about groundhogs might be worthwhile. Groundhogs, of course, belong to the large class of mammals known as rodents. More specifically, they are actually the largest members of the squirrel family found in Pennsylvania. Although groundhogs spend most of their time on the ground, they are excellent tree climbers and swimmers. They are also known as "woodchucks," but this has nothing to do with any association to wood. It comes from a convolution of "wuchak," which is the Algonquian name for this big ground squirrel. Some folks also refer to groundhogs as "whistle-pigs" because when alarmed they will emit a high-pitched whistle to alert others to the potential danger.
While the groundhog might not be worth much as a weather prognosticator, this large rodent is a perfect model of the remarkable biological process known as hibernation. Groundhogs are true hibernators that spend the winter in a state of deep sleep and decreased metabolic activity. The body temperature of a hibernating groundhog can drop from a normal 90 degrees to the low 40s. Its breathing also slows dramatically, and its heartbeat will decrease from nearly 100 beats per minute to a mere 4 beats per minute.
This complete slowdown of bodily functions allows the animal to conserve vital energy by maintaining this dormant state. Groundhogs spend the winter in hibernation not to escape the harsh weather but rather because their food sources are nearly nonexistent.
Groundhogs are herbivores that eat wide variety of wild grasses, clover and other leafy vegetation. Their fondness for agricultural and garden crops makes them quite a persistent pest to many farmers and other landowners. Groundhogs have relatively small home ranges, so an individual animal can do considerable damage once it sets up housekeeping near a field or backyard garden.
Another trait that puts groundhogs firmly into the varmint category for most landowners is their ability for digging burrows. A single groundhog can excavate about 35 cubic feet of dirt weighing almost 700 pounds for its underground home. A typical groundhog burrow will comprise more than 40 feet of tunnels as deep as five feet with from two to five separate entrances. These extensive underground tunnel systems can undermine building foundations and often collapse under the weight of farm machinery causing damage to the equipment and potential injury to the operator. While the groundhog's affinity for digging tunnels does nothing to endear it to humans, many animals benefit from those labors. Rabbits, skunks, raccoons and even foxes will use abandoned groundhog burrows for shelter or as a den.
Groundhogs often build a special winter burrow well below the frost line for hibernating. In this area, most groundhogs will go into hibernation by late October or early November, about the time the first killing frosts eliminate the last of their food sources for the year and emerge again in late March or early April when the greenery starts to grow again.
This post-hibernation period is also the breeding season. Unlike most rodents, however, groundhogs are not that prolific, having just one litter of two to six pups per year. The young are born after a gestation period of 31 or 32 days, and they will be weaned and on their own after five to six weeks.
So armed with a little real-world knowledge of the life and times of the overgrown ground squirrel we call the groundhog, I'm still scratching my head as to how a critter that never sees a day of winter is regarded as the paradigm of weather prediction.