Groundhogs, Woodchucks, and Marmots
Woodchucks, otherwise known as Groundhogs, are actually a type of Marmot. Woodchucks and Marmots are classified as rodents, in the same family as squirrels, and actually look rather like large, roly-poly squirrels. The Woodchuck is a solitary animal that lives mainly in the eastern and central states, Canada, and part of Alaska. They can weigh from 4.5 – 14 pounds. Marmots are generally more sociable and some of them live in colonies and/or hibernate together. They live mainly in the mountainous western U.S., Canada, and Alaska, and can weigh from 5 – 20 pounds. There are many different kinds of Marmots, such as the Yellow-bellied Marmot, the Hoary Marmot, and the Olympic Marmot. Woodchucks and Marmots eat different types of grass, green plants, and fruit. Because of their special diet, they are not able to find food in the winter, as they do not store food like squirrels and do not eat twigs and buds like rabbits do. Instead they hibernate for many months at a time, up to half the year, depending on location. Even though some people do not like the holes in the ground that Woodchucks make, their digging activities can actually be beneficial to farmers, because it aerates the soil.
The fact that the Woodchuck is not found in the West, as well as the fact that the winters there are usually warmer, are probably at least part of the reason why Groundhog Day is more popular in the East. Groundhog Day (February 2nd) is roughly halfway between winter and spring. Legend has it that the Groundhog will emerge from its burrow on this day and if it sees its shadow (sunny weather), the Groundhog will become scared and run back in its burrow, therefore predicting six more weeks of winter. However, if it does not see its shadow (cloudy weather), it will stay outside and there will be an early spring. There are many regional weather-predicting Groundhogs across the U.S. and Canada. For instance, every year Woody the Woodchuck gives her annual prediction at the Howell Nature Center in Howell, Michigan. The problem is, they are only accurate about half the time or less, since it is hard to see how the weather on Feb 2 would really impact a weather pattern six weeks in the future. Another issue is that in much of their range, they are still hibernating and would not be coming out of their burrows until March or April, on account of their being nothing for them to eat. However, it does not stop people from having a lot of fun on Groundhog Day. One of the best things is it gives some publicity to a rather shy animal that not a whole lot of people see, since Woodchucks and Marmots usually run to their burrows at the first sign of disturbance.
Here are some websites to visit:
For more information on Woodchucks:
For more information on the history of Groundhog Day, as well as a list of weather-predicting Groundhogs throughout the U.S. and Canada:
For more information on the Yellow-bellied Marmot:
For more information on Woody the Woodchuck:
John O. Whitaker, Jr., National Audubon Society Guide to North American Mammals (New York: Chanticleer Press, 1996).