IS A GROUNDHOG?
is cold weather nearly over for the year or can we expect six more weeks
of winter? On February 2, known to most as Groundhog Day, Pennsylvania's
Punxsutawney Phil will give his answer. Don't try to figure out why
winter should continue for exactly six weeks or end more quickly, just
enjoy the tradition. And certainly don't try to make any sense out of
the notion that a giant rodent that lives in a hole in the ground and
comes out to look for its shadow in February would be any better at
predicting the weather than the weather app on your smartphone.
a discussion of winter weather prognostication, a centuries-old tradition,
would be interesting, a look at groundhog ecology seems more suitable
for an environmental column. A recently published book ("Mammals
of Alabama," 2014, University of Alabama Press) by Troy L. Best
and Julian L. Dusi answers the ecological questions people might ask.
Because Alabama has such a high diversity of native mammals, the book
covers the biology of most mammal species in the country, especially
for the eastern states. A map shows the geographic range of groundhogs:
from Alaska, across southern Canada and the northern states, to New
England and southward to most of the Southeast.
also known as woodchucks or whistle pigs, are rodents in the squirrel
family. The family also includes chipmunks, tree squirrels and flying
squirrels. Groundhogs are in a group known as marmots, their closest
relatives being yellow-bellied marmots (rock chucks) in western states.
Like other rodents, groundhogs have two upper and lower incisors in
the front of the mouth but no canines. The powerful front teeth can
gnaw through any type of plant material, including bark, roots and hard-shelled
nuts. Their teeth grow throughout their lives. Without constant gnawing
to keep them trimmed back, they would become longer and longer.
to the book, groundhogs "are vocal animals and may squeal, chatter,
bark, or give a loud, shrill whistle." If an animal feels threatened
by a predator in the vicinity, the whistle presumably serves as an alarm
system for other members of its immediate family. A groundhog will typically
head for one of the holes leading into a burrow, which can serve as
protection not only from predators but also from wildfires and inclement
weather. Burrows often have 10 or more entrances on the surface.
are true hibernators. Prior to winter they store body fat and do not
eat until they emerge in early spring. Based on their diet, they can
be considered to be primarily a combination of herbivore and insectivore.
They eat nuts, leaves and other vegetation and a variety of insects.
They also eat snails (gastropods). Males will fight in the springtime
during mating season. Although groundhogs are the biggest members of
the squirrel family in the eastern United States, they have no problem
climbing a tree, whether to forage or to use a high perch as a lookout
post. They can swim if necessary to escape a predator.
the groundhog's physical appearance, most people would agree that whistle
pigs, especially the roly-poly babies, would easily qualify as cute.
But a wild one would undoubtedly let you know with a solid bite that
it did not want to be picked up. Besides the threat from their big front
teeth, another reason not to pick up groundhogs is that they can contract
rabies, although I do not know of any documented case of transmission
to people. A squirrel on steroids might be entertaining to have around,
but vegetable-eating groundhogs are not popular with home gardeners,
and groundhog burrow openings can be a problem for a horse that steps
are unconvinced that a hibernating rodent can signal whether it's time
to put away your winter coat, rest assured you are not alone. Not everyone
believes Punxsutawney Phil can really predict whether winter will continue
for another six weeks. You might as well rely on the Farmers' Almanac.
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