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Shadow of Itself

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Published on: Feb. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 8, 2010

sometimes extend 50 feet horizontally. I found several other entrances sheltered by rocks and trees.

When scientists excavate groundhog dens, they usually can identify a separate sleeping room, nursery and latrine. Groundhogs also use the pile of soil at the main entrance as a latrine. The animal digs a hole for its droppings and then covers them.

A groundhog usually moves from its home each spring, leaving the abandoned tunnels to other animals, such as rabbits, mice, opossums, and skunks. Their summer burrows are often in open areas near food sources.

A groundhog is a true hibernator, which means it sleeps very deeply. Before it nods off, a groundhog pulls soil down from the walls of its sleeping chamber and plugs the hole to keep out intruders. Then it curls into a ball with its forepaws over its eyes.

Researcher Roy A. Grizzell wrote that a hibernating groundhog he examined, "was cold to the touch, showed no signs of normal breathing, and no outward indication of heartbeat." He said he often handled groundhogs for up to 15 minutes without waking them.

Groundhogs typically hibernate alone. In the spring, a male groundhog goes from burrow to burrow, sniffing the soil in front of entrances to locate a solitary female. If one accepts him, he may live with her in the den until the young are born in 32 to 33 days. At that time, the female chases away the male.

The young stay in the nest until they are about four weeks old, when they begin following their mother outside. She runs regular safety drills, sounding an alarm whistle (in some places, groundhogs are called whistle-pigs) that sends the babies scurrying back to the burrow. A groundhog also chatters its teeth when alarmed or frightened. Young groundhogs are particularly vulnerable to predators, even birds of prey, so it's important for them to develop a flighty manner.

Missouri's groundhog hunting season opens the day after the close of spring turkey season and runs through Dec. 15. I prefer not to eat meat, but a lot of people must like groundhog. During a quick search of the Internet I discovered plenty of recipes. The meat can be roasted or, after marinating, cooked on a grill. Most recipes caution you to remove the animal's scent glands during cleaning.

Medical researchers find groundhogs make good surrogate models for studying viral hepatitis in humans. Some wild groundhogs host a virus that's similar to the hepatitis B pathogen.

Groundhogs have gained the most fame for their ability to predict the weather. Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, Pa., is the most famous of these weatherhogs. On Groundhog Day (Feb. 2), Phil is pulled out of an artificial den on Gobbler's Knob. If he sees his shadow, it means we're due for six more weeks of winter.

You don't have to go clear to Gobbler's Knob to find a groundhog worthy of casting a shadow. Missouri has plenty of its own and, according to The Wild Mammals of Missouri, they may begin to come out of their winter burrows early in February, depending upon the weather, of course.

How much can you depend on the weather prognostications of Phil or other groundhogs? Unfortunately, not much. Research shows groundhog predictions are right only about 40 percent of the time.

A new plan carries the Conservation Department into the future.

The Conservation Commission recently approved a strategic plan that will guide the Conservation Department into the future. On paper, the plan is a bulky thing, comprising more than 60 pages. However, it is amazingly flexible, allowing us to respond quickly to changing conservation issues and concerns.

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