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A groundhog primer

Published February 01. 2014 07:10PM

Pennsylvania’s state animal is the whitetail, but you’d never know it judging by the fervor that envelopes the state on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day, when Punxsutawney Phil is pulled from his burrow to let us know whether or not to expect six more weeks of winter.

The Germans who settled in Western PA started the tradition in 1886. Back in Germany, it had been a hedgehog pulled out of its burrow to predict the weather; finding none in PA, they substituted the groundhog.

For the rest of the year, Phil, and his “wife” Phyllis, live in a climate-controlled burrow – designed so that visitors can watch them in their burrow - at the Punxsutawney Library. For Groundhog Day he is placed in an area, which is heated, under a simulated tree stump where he waits for the grand unveiling and prediction.

Despite the annual period of high interest in the animal, most people know little about them. They don’t elicit the same obsession as say, the whitetail. You won’t find coffee table books with a title, say, Moon Phases and Their Effect on Groundhog Hunting. There are no Boone & Crockett standards for groundhogs, a.k.a. woodchucks, whistle pigs and even, land beavers.

Here are some fun facts about Phil and his kin: A groundhog burrow is usually about 20 to 25 feet long, about five feet deep, with a main chamber and several exits. Some may be 40 feet long. They’re designed for digging, with four toes on the front feet, five toes on the back feet. Their mouths are dominated by powerful teeth that can chop through roots if needed as they dig the burrows.

So, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Well, if you figured the volume of dirt moved for an average woodchuck burrow, in other words, if you filled that 25 foot long burrow with wood, you’d need 700 pounds of wood.

Groundhogs go into “profound hibernation.” Their body temperature drops from its usual 99 to 39/40 degree Fahrenheit. Their heartbeat drops from 80 beats a minute to 5; their breathing, from 12 to 4 a minute. They hibernate soon after the first frost and by the time they begin to emerge, in February or March, they’ve lost half of their body weight, which for a full-size adult heading into hibernation may be as much as 14 pounds. The groundhog breeding period takes place in late March to mid-April, and gestation is from 28-32 days.

The male groundhog leaves the den on the same day the young, usually three to five, called kits, are born. When the young are weaned, at about six weeks old the female groundhog carries each one a distance from their home den, helps them make a “starter” hole, and then leaves.

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