“The groundhog is coming out!” We were sitting at the kitchen table last year when Jorja spotted the dirt flying up from the ground at the very back of our yard. The mound of excavated earth kept getting bigger and bigger, and then out came our resident groundhog. It climbed out of its hole, looked around at the snow, stretched its legs a bit, and then sat down, basking briefly in the winter sun. It glanced at its hole and decided it needed some more cleaning out. Back in it went, more dirt flew out, and then, that job done, it went back down into its burrow.
Groundhogs are a species of the genus Marmota, which makes them close relations to squirrels (some sources call them giant ground squirrels). They’re also known as woodchucks, a mispronunciation of a Native American name that gave rise to the old tongue twister: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” But we’ll go back to calling this animal a groundhog, in honor of Groundhog (not Woodchuck) Day on February 2.
Karen Oconnor of Help4Wildlife.com, has been rehabbing groundhogs for five years. Last year she raised seven groundhog babies from three different litters. She suggests looking for groundhogs in backyards and along roadside edges.
Unfortunately, that attraction to roads also increases their chances of becoming roadkill. According to Oconnor, if a mother groundhog has a mishap while out of the burrow, the babies will come out looking for her. Often when baby wild animals are seen alone, the advice is to leave them be. However, in the case of baby groundhogs, Oconnor suggests scooping them up and bringing them to a rehabilitator. Otherwise, the babies will go back into the burrow and die if the mother does not return.
Other popular habitats include rolling farmlands, brushy fence lines, woodlots, and forest edges. Washtenaw County naturalist Shawn Severance says County Farm Park has lots of groundhogs–in warmer months, she sees them frequently running in and out of the tall vegetation around the retention ponds. The park’s Project Grow gardens are another good place to look–groundhogs have a fondness for garden vegetables and some farm crops.
Gardeners don’t appreciate that, but at County Farm Park the practice is to leave them alone. Severance notes that they are an important part of nature, and their burrows are used by lots of other animals.
We have never had a problem with our groundhog. It stays in its part of the yard, and we reciprocate by not destroying its habitat. But, if necessary, there are several ways of moving a groundhog. Oconnor mentions pouring large quantities of used kitty litter down the groundhog hole–but only after May, to be sure that any babies are gone.
The Groundhog Day ritual consists of taking a captive groundhog outside. Legend has it that if the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil is the most famous prognosticator, but some other states also have their own groundhogs; Woody will be the guest of honor at several late January-early February events at the Howell Nature Center.
Don’t expect to see a wild groundhog come out of its burrow at the beginning of February around here. Most likely it will be too cold, and the local groundhogs will still be hibernating. Start looking in the second half of the month. Our groundhog came out last year on March 8 and then went back down. According to Groundhog Day lore, more winter was on its way.