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Groundhog providing lessons at Carbon nature center

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    This groundhog is healing from an injury at the Carbon County Environmental Education Center. JEANNIE CARL/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published February 02. 2019 06:33AM


Groundhog Day is today and I must admit I never really considered how interesting groundhogs are until we took one into our care for the winter.

Groundhogs are true hibernators so for the groundhog who was admitted to the nature center in November, it had more of a problem than its small injury. Releasing it this time of year is not possible because of the weather conditions, so it is “over-wintering” here at the center until it can be released in the spring.

The groundhog is the largest member of the squirrel family and is found in eastern North America, north of the Gulf Coast states, south of the Arctic Circle, and west through Canada into Alaska. Adult groundhogs average 26 inches in length and weigh 9-15 pounds.

They are known by a variety of names like woodchuck, groundpig, whistlepig and whistler.

Groundhogs are prey for bears, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, eagles, great horned owls and others, and are hunted heavily by humans.

But the successful rearing of young replaces those that are taken as prey.

Males will begin to become active around the beginning of February when they begin to search for mates. Even if there is snow on the ground, they will travel throughout their range to inspect the dens of females to see if they are still occupied and they are checking to make sure that no other males are moving in on their territory.

They return to their own dens for a few more weeks of sleep, before emerging for the season in early March, when the females also emerge for mating.

A female produces one litter of two to six babies each year, usually starting in her second year, raising them in the protection of an underground burrow.

A burrow has two to five entrances and several chambers. Escaping predators, sleeping, birthing/raising young and excrement are the most common uses for these chambers.

It’s not uncommon for a groundhog, particularly an older groundhog, to have more than one burrow. Burrows have been known to extend 66 feet and be as deep as 5 feet below the surface. In one study, researchers excavated a dozen dens and determined that on average 384 pounds of soil and stone had been dug out by each groundhog.

Young groundhogs will dig practice burrows shortly before they become independent. These burrows are close to home, are only a few feet deep and are never used for anything other than digging practice. They return home to the safety of mother’s burrow before finally leaving.

They are loners and do not share a burrow with another unless they are raising young. The practice burrows do serve a purpose because red foxes, skunks, opossums and rabbits will use the abandoned groundhog burrows. They rely on the groundhog’s engineering abilities to provide critical habitat for them. Besides being built for digging, groundhogs are strong climbers and swimmers.

Groundhogs are entirely herbivores, eating vegetation, fruits, berries, and tree bark and twigs almost exclusively. Much like Peter Rabbit … this gets them into trouble with gardeners because they eat about a third of their weight every day.

I don’t know if I will get to voice my opinion as to when the groundhog is released but if I do, I am going to pick a cloudy day!

Will the groundhog see its shadow, signaling six more weeks of winter? Check for the latest updates from Punxsatawney and our local groundhog lodge in Kresgeville. For more about groundhogs, see Barry Reed’s column on page A4.


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