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Where did Groundhog Day come from?


How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Believe it or not, this question has an answer – 700 pounds. The question related to this well-known mammal that still doesn’t have an answer is this: Can a groundhog – which is the more common name for the woodchuck in this region of the country – predict the length of winter?

Now is when the groundhog becomes a newsmaker because of Groundhog Day on February 2. This is the annual tradition that if Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog in Pennsylvania, sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If no shadow is seen, the subsequent weather is supposed to be mild.

The Groundhog Day legend probably originated with Germans settlers who came to the Pennsylvania area in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the European folk tales that likely came with them was a belief that mammals like hedgehogs and badgers were weather prophets.

Another imported belief was that if the sun shone on Candlemas Day – February 2 – it meant six more weeks of wintry weather. It seems these two bits of European folklore became entwined and by the late 1800s, Groundhog Day was a February fixture in the U.S. Moving from folklore to facts brings us to Marmota monax, the animal commonly called groundhog, woodchuck or whistlepig. This relatively large rodent (five to 10 pounds) is yellowish-brown to brown and eats mostly plants. Favorite foods include grasses, forbs, clover, tree leaves and numerous herbs. Groundhogs also have a taste for farm crops; especially alfalfa,

planted clover, corn, oats and assorted fruits and vegetables. When alarmed, a woodchuck gives a loud, shrill whistle (thus the name “whistlepig”).

A groundhog family’s underground burrow system often consists of several entrances, tunnels and chambers. The main entrance is frequently at the base of a stump or rock and is conspicuous because of freshly excavated dirt and rocks piled in front. Tunnels can stretch more than 40 feet and include multiple side entrances and chambers. These burrows can be extensive, which brings us back to the question: “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” Presuming “chucking wood” means moving wood, the answer is about 700 pounds. This figure was reached by measuring the total inside volume of a groundhog’s burrow and calculating that if a groundhog filled this space with wood, it would equal approximately 700 pounds.

Unlike animals that alternate periods of inactivity with brief times of activity in winter, groundhogs are true hibernators. In autumn (usually around October), groundhogs go into a torpid state in their burrows and rely solely on body fat to survive winter. During hibernation, a groundhog’s heartbeat slows from more than 100 beats per minute to as few as 15. Its body temperature drops to between 43 and 57 degrees Fahrenheit.

In Missouri, groundhogs rouse from hibernation in early February, but emergence from dens depends somewhat on weather. They may appear in early February, but if it’s severely cold, they may not appear until mid-month.

Missouri has a groundhog hunting season that runs from the day after the close of spring turkey season through December 15. There is no bag limit or possession limit. For information about groundhogs or controlling groundhog problems, contact your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or conservation agent. Information is also at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.


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