The Legendary Groundhog

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? My father teased me with that tongue-twister when I was a kid and so I did likewise when my own kids were young. The name woodchuck is derived from the Algonquian word wuchack and refers to a group of ground squirrels known as marmots. Regionally these husky rodents are also called groundhogs and sometimes whistlepigs because of the high-pitched shriek that they use to warn others of impending danger. The groundhog is widely distributed across North America and is common in the northeastern and central United States and Canada. It is found as far north as Alaska and ranges southward to Georgia. It is a common resident of the Finger Lakes Region as well.

The groundhog is primarily an herbivore typically measuring about 2 feet in length and weighing up to 10 pounds. But those in farm country where alfalfa is grown can measure 6 inches longer and weigh more than 20 pounds. They are well adapted for digging and their burrows can be a nuisance to farmers and gardeners alike. These roomy underground dens, which can have anywhere from two to five entrances, are used for security, sleeping, rearing young, and hibernation, but they can also undermine building foundations, damage farm machinery, and injure livestock. After a bit of remodeling, hijacked groundhog dens often provide homes for coyotes or gray and red foxes, prompting one to wonder whatever happened to the original occupants.

Without a doubt, the most famous groundhog is the legendary Punxsutawney Phil. Each year on February 2nd, which is officially Groundhog Day in the United States and Canada, Phil emerges from his den on Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, before sunrise to provide a meteorological prognostication. If he sees his shadow and returns to his burrow, he has predicted six more weeks of winter weather. But if he doesn’t see his shadow, an early spring is in the offing. In 1993, Punxsutawney Phil became a national celebrity when he co-starred with Bill Murray in the comedy movie Groundhog Day.

The groundhog’s diet and habit of burrowing puts it in the nuisance category especially around farms that grow hay and pasture grass. Oftentimes, farmers will welcome or even invite woodchuck hunters to thin the population in a freshly-baled hayfield. Although it was once on the menu as a delicacy in Eastern Europe and still is in China, groundhog meat is seldom eaten here. Even so, the internet is loaded with recipes for the chubby little herbivore. So now that we know that woodchucks eat greens and don’t chuck wood, it prompts one to think about changing the opening tongue-twister to: How much ground would a groundhog hog if a groundhog could hog ground?

 


adamski_profile_Apr21story and photos by John Adamski