On Groundhog Day: Ten Things to Know about These Surprising Creatures

As we approach Groundhog Day, we thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the remarkable things that are known about these critters.  Groundhogs (or woodchucks) are rodents and are part of the marmot family.  After squirrels, they are among the most frequently observed mammals in the U.S. and Canada.

Here are ten things you may not have known about America’s “woodchucks.”

  1. The name “woodchuck” does not come from these creatures tossing wood around or from just being woodland dwellers but rather it comes from an Algonquian (possibly Narragansett) name for the animal, wuchak.
  2. The average animal weighs between 4-9 pounds but some (in places where there is alfalfa farming, for example) have been known to reach 30 pounds which would make them “woodchunks.”
  3. Many people are surprised to discover that groundhogs are accomplished swimmers and (when pursued by a predator or reaching for a snack) are excellent tree climbers.
  4. When they observe something that might be a threat, they will rise up on their hind legs and let out a clear warning whistle to family members much in the same way as prairie dogs in the West.
  5. The average wild groundhog will live for two to three years.  One animal was actually known to have lived for 22 years in captivity in Wiarton, Ontario (the iconic “Wiarton Willie”).  The U.S. version of Willie is Punxsutawney Phil (from Pennsylvania).  Legend has it, from the local Punxsutawney townspeople, that Phil is over 100 years old.   Hmm.
  6. Groundhogs hibernate for three to six months each year and, prior to going underground, will accumulate a half inch layer of fat to hold them over.  An adult animal will eat about one third of its body weight per day in late summer which makes them a true challenge for many gardeners.
  7. Groundhogs are champion diggers.  On average, an animal will remove about 700 pounds of soil to make a burrow.  The burrow is designed with several rooms and extends for 25 to 35 feet.  One to three entrances are included.  Farmers have been known to say that a groundhog “eats to give himself the strength to dig holes, and then dig holes to give himself an appetite.”
  8. In Delaware, Ohio, a groundhog burrow actually ended up uncovering a Native American archaeological site.  It is called the Ufferman Site from the Woodland period and the groundhogs have excavated bones, pottery and stone tools.
  9. The first official Groundhog Day was celebrated on February 2, 1886 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  As indicated above, this event gave rise to the annual observation of the groundhog activities of “Punxsutawney Phil.” The town of Wiarton in Ontario, Canada, has a similar iconic weather predictor called “Wiarton Willie.”
  10. The “Groundhog Day” legend comes from German tradition when, on Candlemas Day, people would tell a tale of hedgehogs or badgers serving as a test for the remaining duration of winter.  The first recorded U.S. reference was made Feb. 4, 1841 in Morgantown, Pennsylvania when storekeeper James Morris’ diary made this entry: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas Day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

At the National Wildlife Federation’s offices in Reston, Virginia, we have several resident groundhogs.  They pretty much have the run of the place in the summer months and can been seen sunning on the rocks by our pond or climbing the bushes in our wildlife garden for leafy snacks. We try to talk them into waiting until the plants in the garden have grown up a bit more but they are less patient. In all, groundhogs are amazing creatures that are full of surprises and certainly seek their own counsel.

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Published: January 30, 2011