by Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist for University of Illinois Extension in Coles County
When he emerges from his burrow on Gobblers Knob in a little place called Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, each February 2nd, a little varmint named Punxsutawney Phil usually sees his shadow and scurries back in. According to German superstition, this means that the chubby rodent is actually forecasting six more weeks of winter. But this year, Phil's distinction as a furry, weather-predicting oracle is being put to the test. This time, he actually didn't see his shadow. In fact, his official prediction is that 2011 will have an early spring!
While this is welcome news after all we have suffered weather-wise in recent days, maybe we shouldn't celebrate just yet. Although Phil has been prognosticating about the coming of spring since the 1880's, it has been determined that he's accurate only about 39 to 40% of the time. (He might do better to flip a coin.) In other words, his forecasts just aren't very reliable.
He is in good company, at least. Most experienced meteorologists have trouble predicting the right temperatures even a week in advance. So despite advanced computer models and high-tech satellite images, they would still have to be pretty brave to predict weather patterns six weeks ahead of time. And if the members of the top-hat and tuxedo-wearing businessmen of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle have anything to say about it, each February 2nd that will always be Phil the groundhog's job!
Whether Phil sees his shadow or not, come springtime it's a sure bet that his furry cousins in our area will awake from their long winter naps and venture out into the sun. One of just a few species of true hibernators in Illinois, this characteristic comes in very handy when February rolls around. Just what are these large, likable rodents, and why do they sometimes live so close to our backyards and treasured gardens?
Sometimes called woodchucks or whistlepigs, groundhogs are the largest members of the squirrel family Sciuridae and are related to other "marmots" that occur in the American west. They are a stocky rodent with a broad head, blunt muzzle, short strong legs, and a short, well-furred tail. They are usually a grizzled brownish-gray, but white (albino) or black (melanistic) individuals are occasionally found. Weighing seven to fourteen pounds and about 20 to 25 inches long, males are typically larger than females. They have small ears and large black eyes, but their most distinguishing feature is the forefeet with long, curved claws that are well-adapted for digging elaborate burrows underground.
Like other rodents, groundhogs have yellowish white chisel-like incisor teeth for gnawing. Their eyes, ears, and nose are all located near the top of the head so they can stay hidden in their burrows while they check for danger over the rim or edge. Although usually slow runners over long distances, groundhogs are keenly alert and can scurry very quickly to their dens when they sense danger.
In general, groundhogs prefer open farmland and the adjacent wooded or brushy areas. They prefer mildly sloped as opposed to flat ground, in fields, and along fence rows, stone walls, roadsides, and near building foundations or the bases of trees. Almost always found near grassy areas, the dens often have a large mound of excavated earth at the main entrance. There are always two or more entrances to each burrow system, which is irregular and can be extensive in size. The secondary entrances are dug from below the ground, have no mounds of dirt beside them, and are usually well hidden. During spring, freshly excavated earth at the main entrance is a dead giveaway that this is an active burrow. The entire burrow system serves as the main location for mating, raising and weaning four to six young, hibernating in winter, and for protection from natural predators such as hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and weasels.
Active during the daylight hours but not usually ranging far from their dens, groundhogs maintain sanitary den sites and burrow systems, replacing their nesting materials frequently. It is common for them to use the same burrow and den system for several seasons. Old burrows not in use by groundhogs often provide cover and protection for rabbits, weasels, coyotes, and other wildlife, making the groundhog one of nature's most efficient "construction engineers."
Groundhogs prefer to find food during the early morning and late afternoon hours. They are herbivores (plant eaters) and prefer foods such as soybeans, carrot tops, alfalfa, and clover. They also choose a wide variety of vegetables, grasses, legumes, and fruit. Occasionally they will eat insects, snails, eggs, and young birds if they happen upon them. When not feeding, they will sometimes bask in the sun during the warmest periods of the day, and that is often when they are most visible to humans. They have been observed dozing on fence posts, large rocks, and fallen logs close to the burrow entrance. I have memories of regularly seeing a woodchuck near the entrance of his burrow in a farm field across from our home years ago as I picked up our daughters after school each day. Every afternoon we would look for him and would often see him relaxing in the sun on those warm autumn days.
When startled at his burrow entrance, the groundhog may emit a shrill alarm or whistle (thus the term "whistlepig"), followed by a low, rapid warble that sounds like "tchuck, tchuck." . While groundhogs may live up to ten years in captivity, they live only three to six years in the wild, victimized often by a variety of predators. And because they move fairly slowly, they are often killed on the roadways by automobiles.
There is a certain irony built into our relationships with groundhogs. We humans have made stars out of the likes of "Punxsutawney Phil" in Pennsylvania, New York's "Staten Island Chuck", Ohio's "Buckeye Chuck", and Georgia's down-home "General Beauregard Lee" (the list goes on), and have made a whole mythology out of the interplay between their shadows and the arrival of spring. But just a few weeks later, we might find ourselves in conflict situations with their Illinois cousins as they set up housekeeping near or on our properties and help themselves to our garden vegetables. What can we do? Tune in next month as we explore ways to deal with these very likable but sometimes annoying furry neighbors.