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Groundhogs are great eaters, not prognosticators

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Paul Hetzler horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, Canton.

By PAUL HETZLER

Researchers are still puzzling over the age-old question, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood,” but I may have a solution. Re-brand the woodchuck.

Woodchuck is an Algonquin term meaning “fat fur-ball that can inhale one’s garden faster than one can say ‘Punxsutawney Phil.’” Or something like that, I’m sure. Unfortunately, their name implies woodchucks are somehow employed in the forest products industry. Woodchucks haven’t the teeth for chewing wood, nor do they have much use for wood in their burrows (we can only assume their dens aren’t paneled).

Much as I respect the origin of “woodchuck,” I’m in favor of sticking to one of its other names, groundhog, which is more descriptive. Not only do these rotund herbivores reside underground, they’re such gluttons that I’m pretty sure even pigs call them hogs. Tellingly, another common name is “whistle-pig,” referring to groundhogs’ warning calls as well as their appetites.

Groundhogs in wild areas typically mature at around 5 to 9 pounds and 15 to 25 inches long. With access to lush gardens or tasty alfalfa, though, they can get 30 inches long and weigh as much as 30 pounds. Now that’s a ground hog. Needless to say, vacuuming up fields and gardens has given them a bad name in some circles.

Native to most of North America from Alaska to Georgia, groundhogs are a type of rodent called a marmot. They’re related to other marmots and to ground squirrels out west, but in the northeast they have no close kin. Given what a marmot can eat, that’s a mercy.

They may be gluttons, but they’re not lazy. Groundhogs dig extensive burrows up to 5 feet deep and 40 feet in length, each having two to five entrances. Supposedly, the average groundhog moves 35 cubic feet of soil digging its burrow (I’d like to know who measures these things).

Alfalfa rustling is bad enough, but this other hobby really riles farmers. Groundhog burrows and soil piles can injure livestock, weaken foundations and damage equipment. Many a farmer trying to mow hay has cursed the groundhog when the haybine “found” a soil pile before they did. Hard to appreciate their cuteness while you replace cutterbar knives for the tenth time.

True hibernators, groundhogs usually enter their dens in October, their winter body temperature dropping to about 50F and their heart rate slowing to a few beats per minute. Groundhogs might emerge in February in Pennsylvania, but you probably won’t find one around here before March at the earliest, more likely April. I’ve seen a groundhog entrance hole ringed by a halo of dirty snow in March from where it shook itself, undoubtedly miffed about the white stuff.

The notion that a sunny Feb. 2 means a late spring began in ancient Europe. That date marks the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between winter solstice and spring equinox. Imbolc was supplanted by Candelmas as Christianity spread, but both traditions reference the sunny/cloudy weather idea.

Mostly because Europe lacked groundhogs, Groundhog Day was invented in the New World, first popping up among the Pennsylvania Germans sometime in the mid-1800s. Though Punxsutawney Phil was the original prognosticating marmot, others like Wiarton Willie, Jimmy the Groundhog and General Beauregard Lee followed.

We know groundhogs can hog a lot of ground, especially if beans and peas are growing on it. I think we should pull those researchers off the woodchuck question and have them find a way to make every Groundhog Day overcast.

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