The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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The Groundhog

By Spike Knuth © 1990
Information Officer
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Issue: August, 1990

Normally we hear most about the groundhog in February when he makes his mythical appearance to see or not see his shadow and thus determine whether we will have six more weeks of winter or not. In the north it wakes up a full month later than in Virginia! If the cold spell hasn't broken by February in Virginia, it is unlikely that he is even awake to come out to cast a shadow, sun or no sun! When it starts to awaken, it takes hours for it to come around.

The groundhog, or woodchuck, is a true hibernator and spends most of its time curled up and asleep from October to February or March. During hibernation, the animal's pulse slows way down and its temperature drops to between 43 and 57 degrees. It gets its nourishment from the buildup of fat laid in the previous fall.

Actually, summertime is the time to see groundhogs. They are a common sight along Virginia roadsides and fields as they trundle about either feeding quietly or scurrying for cover as their domain and their perceived safety is threatened.

The groundhog is somewhat solitary, living in an area of about 1/4 to 1/2 mile in range. Its chunky body of up to 14 pounds has short powerful legs, a bushy, flattened tail and a broad head with large gnawing-type teeth. The groundhog is normally grayish-brown in color with a yellowish or reddish cast and light underside.

Called "monax" - the digger - by the Indians, the groundhog is capable of moving over 700 pounds of rock and subsoil in order to dig its burrow of many entrances. The burrow usually has a concealed side entrance for safety, a large mound outside for observation and sunning purposes. A cozy, grass-lined nest is developed inside for the soon-to-come young.

They prefer to build a burrow in open land near timber, along fence rows and heavily vegetated gullies. They frequently burrow into the high washed out and re-vegetated banks of some of our bigger rivers.

The groundhog usually stays close to home, spending much of its time in its burrow. If it is caught in the open, or suddenly alarmed, it emits a loud, shrill whistle, from which it gets the name "whistle pig."

Groundhog babies are pink in color and hairless at birth. They measure about four inches long and weigh about an ounce and a half. There are about four or five to the litter. At first they are nourished by the mother's milk and slowly weaned as the mother adds bits of green to their diet. They are then fed green food in the burrow for about two weeks before they come out. The playful young reach four pounds by mid-summer and join the adults in eating grasses, alfalfa, leaves, roots, stems, bark, berries, nuts and a variety of garden crops. It can do considerable damage to the family plot.

While its burrowing is considered a nuisance, especially because of its danger to livestock, its diggings offer places of refuge for other mammals such as rabbits, skunks, opossums and others.

The groundhog ranges over much of Canada and the United States as far as northeastern Oklahoma and northeastern Montana, and is absent from the Gulf Coast lowlands, the deserts, the Rockies and the Pacific Coast.