Sunday, January 31, 2010

Apple #436: Groundhog Day

I can’t believe I haven’t done an entry yet on groundhogs or Groundhog Day.

Typical groundhog.
(Photo from Construction Lit Mag)

Real Groundhogs
  • Groundhogs and woodchucks are the same thing.  They’re two different names for the same animal.
  • Groundhogs are a type of marmot.  They’re in the same family with squirrels, prairie dogs, and chipmunks.
  • Usually their fur is brown, but they may also be completely black.  More rarely, they may be all white (albino).
  • They're stocky animals with flattened heads and brushy tails. Their legs are thick and strong and because they spend much of their time digging, they tend to waddle when they walk.
  • They're slow runners, so they escape from predators (foxes, coyotes, dogs) by ducking into their dens.
  • If cornered, they can be fierce fighters. There are lots of stories about particularly feisty groundhogs fighting off dogs as big as Lassie.

Groundhog and dog, squaring off. The groundhog won this round, perhaps only because the dog's owner corralled him and pulled him away.
(Photo from Hoarded Ordinaries)

    • They make several noises. They grunt when they're happy; when they fight, they make a series of huffing, then squealing noises; and when a predator is approaching, they let out a high-pitched, warbling, chattering sound called a shrill. (Wav files are from HogHaven.)
    • They also grind their teeth, and they make a sound like a low bark, but people don't know the purpose of this sound.
    • In the spring and summer they spend the majority of their time eating.  They have to store up enough fat in order to survive the winter, when they hibernate.
    • During these months, groundhogs hang out where they can find the most food, which happens to be in areas where woodlands meet open spaces, like fields, roads, or streams.
    • They eat grasses and dandelions and clover and alfalfa as well as fruits and occasionally tree bark. They also find a gardener's vegetables very tasty. Because they have to eat like mad in the summer and fall in preparation for winter, they have destroyed many a farmer's crops.
    • Another reason they have to keep eating is because their teeth don’t stop growing throughout their lives.  They have to keep chewing to keep their teeth worn down, or else their teeth will get way too big and possibly even kill them.
    • Groundhogs' feet have little paw pads, and on their back feet, they have a thumb-like digit which makes their paws look very similar to human hands, except with those extra pads and the long, sharp claws.

    I found some great photos of groundhog feet, but they have copyright notices all over them. So I can't show them to you here. But if you really want to see, and I recommend you look, check out this photo of a groundhog's front paw and this other photo of a groundhog's rear paw.

    The tracks a groundhog makes.

    • With those sharp claws, groundhogs can and sometimes do climb trees. They can also swim.  But usually they stay on the ground.
    • They have one den for summer and one for winter. The summer dens are relatively shallow, only 2 to 4 feet deep. They're built close to where they can find food, and often beneath structures like sheds or barns or garages.
    • Winter dens are dug in dry areas and are several feet deep. This is where the groundhogs go after the first frost to hibernate, so the dens have to be deep enough to keep the animals below the frost line.
    • While hibernating, the animal's heart rate plunges, and its body temperature is not much warmer than the temperature inside its burrow, about 39 to 40 degrees.
    • Winter or summer, the dens usually have two entrances, one where they come and go most often, and a second, smaller one where they can look out and see if the coast is clear or sneak out and escape a predator who's interested in the den.
    • Inside, the dens are lined with leaves and they are kept quite clean. There are rooms where the animals sleep and nurse their young, and a separate room which is essentially the bathroom. The groundhogs will wipe their feet before entering the den.

    Cross-section of a groundhog's den.
    (Drawing by Judith Moffatt, from Highlights Kids)

    • In the spring, as soon as he emerges from hibernation, the male starts looking for a female. He walks from den to den until he finds a female who's interested. He mates with her and stays with her until she's ready to give birth. Then she kicks him out of the den to have her babies.
    • She usually has about six cubs, which are born blind and helpless.
    • She keeps him away from the cubs and won't let her near them. So he goes back to wandering from den to den, looking for another female. But most of them have already had their cubs and they run him off, too.

    Groundhog Day
    • The legend, which seems to have come to the U.S. with settlers from Germany (and the Germans may have gotten the tradition from Roman conquerors), is that if a groundhog wakes from hibernation, sees its shadow, and returns to its den, there will be six more weeks of winter.
    • I’m not sure why Punxsutawney, PA became the center for Groundhog Day predictions, other than that a lot of Germans settled in Pennsylvania.  And the media might have had something to do with it.
    • Punxsutawney Phil has been predicting the weather since 1887.  It wasn’t until 1966 when the ceremony of Phil emerging from his burrow at Gobbler’s Knob was made public.  Since then, it has become an increasingly popular media event.
    • Now thousands of people descend on Gobbler's Knob, often as early as 3:00 in the morning or even the night before.  They wait outside in the cold until sunrise, around 7:00, when Phil makes his prediction.  I'm told there's a lot of drinking and shenanigans that go on in that 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. window. 
    • In Punxsutawney on February 2, the groundhog is brought out of his “home” in a tree stump.  He’s held up next to the president of the Groundhog Club and supposedly he speaks his prediction in “groundhogese.”  The Groundhog Club President then announces Phil’s prediction to everyone else.

    Punxsutawney Phil being held up by one of the members of the Inner Circle. That's what those guys in the top hats call themselves.
    (Photo from mypunchbowlblog)

      • Punxsutawney Phil almost always sees his shadow. Only 12 times out of the 109 years for which there are records did not see not see his shadow. In 1943, he didn't even come out of his hole. I don't blame him. There was a major war on that year.
      • He's been seeing no shadow more often lately. 6 of those 12 times he didn't see his shadow were in the last 10 years. Maybe Punxsutawney Phil knows about global warming too?
      • February 2 is what's known as a "cross-quarter" day, which means it's halfway between the winter solstice (the onset of winter) and the vernal equinox in March (the beginning of spring).  So by the calendar, February 2 is the dead middle of winter.
      • As it happens, groundhogs don't really end their hibernation until after Feb. 2. Depending on how far south or north they live, they may wake up a week later, or not until March.
      • What wakes them up is the change in the amount of daylight.

      I plan to continue my celebration of Groundhog Day by watching, again, the movie of the same name, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.  I don’t think her character is all that charming or desirable, and that sort of dampens the movie for me.  But the rest of it, particularly the fact that the day repeats over and over and over until he apparently gets it right, is genius.  And I love Bill Murray.  He lets the groundhog drive.  Maybe if I watch the movie enough times, I’ll get to run off with him.


      Okay, campers, rise and shine! Don't forget your booties cause it's cold out there today.

      It's cold out there every day.  What is this, Miami Beach?

      Not hardly. And you know, you can expect hazardous travel later today with that, you know, that, uh, that blizzard thing.

      That blizzard-thing? That blizzard-thing. Oh, well, here's the report! The National Weather Service is calling for a "big blizzard thing!"

      Yes, they are. But you know, there's another reason why today is especially exciting.

      Especially cold!

      Especially cold, okay, but the big question on everybody's lips...

      -- On their chapped lips.

      -- On their chapped lips, right. Do you think Phil is gonna come out and see his shadow?

      Punxsutawney Phil!

      That's right, woodchuck chuckers, it's

      [in unison] GROUNDHOG DAY!

      If you want to know how long Phil Connors actually lives Groundhog Day over again, The Movie Guy has come up with an estimate. The short answer: nearly 34 years.

      P.S. How much wood could a wood chuck chuck?
      • Though they can gnaw on bark, woodchucks don't actually eat that much wood, nor do they carry it around as beavers do. However, if they could carry it around, and if they used wood to fill one of their dens, they would have chucked about 700 pounds' worth of wood.

      National Geographic, Animals, Groundhog (Marmota monax)
      Dr. Julia Spencer,
      Hinterland Who's Who, Mammal Fact Sheets: Woodchuck
      IMDb, Groundhog Day (1993)
      Groundhog Day, The Official Website of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club
      Jason Patton's Groundhog Day page


      1. 6 more weeks of winter he said today! Goodie! I just love that they have a separate "toilet chamber". How cute is that?

      2. New Yorkers are total copycats. I just found out they have their own groundhog: Staten Island Chuck, or something like that. Last year, he bit mayor Bloomberg. This year, the mayor handled him a bit more carefully (no pun intended). Fun fact: groundhogs are about the same size as Dudley. Unlike Dudley, they don't make snoodles.

      3. Marty! Holy cats. I was only last night thinking about "strengthening my knees"! How'd you find this?

        (I saw a headline about that alternate groundhog, by the way, but then couldn't remember his name or what part of New York he was from to find the article again.)

      4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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