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The secret life of the groundhog

Updated on February 2, 2012

The groundhog, scientific name Marmota monax, also commonly know as a woodchuck, is a member of the rodent family. It belongs to the scientific family Sciuridae, along with other well known creatures such as squirrels, chipmunks, and prairie dogs. Most wildly known for it's yearly role of predicting when spring will begin, the groundhog is an interesting animal that many people probably don't know much about.

Groundhogs are large, usually 40 to 65 cm long, and weigh about 4 to 6 pounds. However, that is just an average and in more suitable habitats with abundant food sources groundhogs have been recorded to reach up to 31 pounds. They have short powerful legs that are excellent for digging, and short somewhat stubby tails. Their fur is coarse and consists of a dense insulating undercoat and longer protective guard hairs. In the wild, the groundhog lives an average of 3 years but some make it to about 6. In captivity groundhogs seem to live a bit longer, with reports stating that they can live anywhere from 9 to 22 years.

Groundhogs are native to North America and can be found in the United States in lowland habitats from Alaska to Alabama. Most groundhogs can be found in open areas on the outskirts of woodlands. They are diurnal, meaning most active during the day. These private animals live in burrows that they excavate themselves. Most groundhogs never stray too far from their burrow entrance. Their underground homes usually have at least two or more separate entrances. The numerous burrow entrances helps make it easier for groundhogs to escape predators. If one groundhog spots danger, it will alert others in the area by making a whistle like warning sound. The most common predators of groundhogs include coyotes, foxes, wolves, bears, bobcats, hawks, snakes, and dogs.

A groundhogs burrow is central to it's life, providing shelter, a place to sleep and hibernate, and it is also where they raise their young. Groundhogs usually start breeding when they are two years old. Their breeding season starts in late February to early March and extends to late April. Baby groundhogs have a gestation time of about 31 days. The young, normally around 3 - 6 in a litter, are born hairless and blind. They don't stay that way for long, though, and by the time they are about 6 weeks old they are usually ready to start leaving their mother's borrow to make burrows of their own.

Groundhogs are mostly herbivores, but will also eat insects, snails, and other small animals they come across. Most of their diet, however, consists of wild grasses and vegetation. They also eat berries and agricultural crops when they can, and have been seen eating nuts as well. Groundhogs do not drink water, they obtain all the hydration they need through their food.

Groundhogs are one of the few animals who truly hibernate. Hibernation starts around October, and generally goes until March or April depending on the climate. To prepare for hibernation, groundhogs eat as much as they can to gain as much weight as possible before retreating to a special winter burrow, dug below the frost line, to hibernate.

Groundhogs are most famous for their role in the holiday Groundhog day, celebrated in the US and Canada on February 2nd. According to the legend, if the groundhog emerges from hibernation on February 2nd and it is cloudy out (the groundhog doesn't see it's shadow) then spring will come early that year. If it's sunny, however, and the groundhog can see it's shadow, then the groundhog will return to it's burrow and there will be 6 more weeks of winter weather. Groundhog day celebrations around North America usually involve using a real captive groundhog to make weather predictions. Proponents of these rodent weather forecasters claim that the groundhogs predictions are accurate up to 90% of the time. However, a Canadian study suggests that their success rate is much lower, at around only 37%. Whether the groundhogs are correct or not, Groundhog day is a fun day to celebrate and to start to look forward to the impending approach of Spring.


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