Groundhog Day is the only nationally recognized holiday honoring a rodent.
Yet, how much do we know about the groundhog? (Other than the fact that it isn’t deemed important enough to give government employees a day off.)
Groundhogs are remarkable creatures. A member of the rodent family, they are related to squirrels, prairie dogs, chipmunks, marmots and H. Ross Perot.
Groundhogs also are known as woodchucks, a name derived from the Delaware Indian legend “Wojak the Groundhog.” The Delaware considered Wojak an ancestral grandfather. Since groundhogs lived in burrows, they were believed to represent mankind’s ascent from a subterranean existence to a suburban existence.
So much for evolution.
Cornell University researchers finally have come up with an answer to the age-old question: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
Their original answer was: “Who gives a damn?”
After further research, they estimated that, if the dirt a woodchuck moves in the course of digging a burrow was wood, it would weigh 700 pounds.
But this is a moot point because groundhogs don’t have much use for wood, other than eating bark and small branches in early spring.
Otherwise, they mainly eat succulent green plants including dandelion greens, clover, grasses, garden vegetables and Purina Woodchuck Chow when they can afford it.
When they’re in a predatory mood, groundhogs will run down and eat anything they can catch. In other words, slugs and very slow insects.
With a top speed of 9.3 mph, they are easy prey for foxes, coyotes, dogs and Ford Escorts.
Many farmers consider groundhogs a nuisance, mostly because of their voracious appetite for crops and the hazards their burrows create for tractors.
On the other hand, groundhogs absolutely adore farmers. Groundhogs were relatively scarce in the Northeast and Midwest before settlers cleared the forests for agriculture, villages and malls. Now groundhogs outnumber people in some counties.
Not that all farmers hate groundhogs. In fact, some farmers love them — fried, roasted, stewed or sautéed in olive oil and garlic.
Groundhogs have been known to live for 10 years. Although, given their mundane existence, it probably seems much longer to them.
Groundhogs dig their summer burrows near food sources. This enables them to conserve valuable calories so they can bulk up for winter hibernation.
Their winter burrows are dug below the frost line. During hibernation, a groundhog’s body temperature drops as low as 3 degrees Celsius. Their heart rate decreases from 80 beats per minute to four or five beats per minute, which is slightly slower than that of the average couch potato.
Groundhogs go into hibernation in September or October and begin to emerge about the second week in February. For that reason, early German settlers — known in some circles as Pennsylvania Dutch – used them in lieu of their native badgers as a mid-winter harbinger of spring.
Apparently none of them had the foresight to bring along harbingers of their own.
The Germans weren’t the only people to use hibernating mammals to predict an early or late spring. Other Europeans used hedgehogs or bears.
The latter proved problematic because, if the bear emerged and saw its shadow, anyone close enough to witness it probably wouldn’t have lived to see spring anyway.
On the other hand, it would have made the annual festivities in Punxsutawney a lot more entertaining.
This story originally ran as a column in the Ashland Times-Gazette. The references to H. Ross Perot and Ford Escorts should give you some idea of how long ago.