Happy Groundhog Day!
In honor of Groundhog Day, here are ten cool facts about Missouri's furry weather forecasters.
- Groundhogs are chubby mammals with flattened heads, stubby legs and short, bushy tails. They are closely related to squirrels and chipmunks. In fact, biologists say groundhogs are the largest members of the squirrel family. An adult groundhog can weigh 14 pounds—a few pounds more than the average house cat.
- Groundhog and woodchuck are common names for the same animal. If startled, groundhogs give a shrill whistle, which is why some folks call them whistle pigs.
- Groundhogs live in burrows. They use long, sturdy claws on their feet to dig. Biologists figure a groundhog can move 700 pounds of dirt when digging a typical burrow 5 feet deep and 25 feet long. Each burrow usually has one main entrance and one or more spy holes for the groundhog to peek out of to look for predators. Groundhogs dig separate chambers in their burrows for sleeping and for going to the bathroom.
- Abandoned groundhog burrows provide homes for all kinds of animals including skunks, rabbits, raccoons, foxes and coyotes.
- In early autumn, groundhogs settle into their burrows and fall into a deep sleep called hibernation. During hibernation, a groundhog’s temperature drops from 96 to about 45 degrees. (If your temperature dropped that much, you’d never wake up.) While hibernating, a groundhog’s heart beats only four or five times a minute, and it breathes only once every four minutes.
- Groundhogs spend all spring and summer stuffing their furry faces. By fall they’re quite fat—which is a good thing. While hibernating, groundhogs go without eating or drinking for nearly five months!
- Why do groundhogs hibernate? Groundhogs are mostly vegetarians—they eat plants. In winter, most plants disappear, leaving hungry groundhogs with little to eat. So, instead of staying awake to look for food, groundhogs sleep.
- Groundhogs usually hibernate alone. In the spring, male groundhogs wake up first and go from burrow to burrow looking for a mate. If he finds a female that likes him, he lives in her burrow for a while. But when the female has babies about a month later, she kicks the male out.
- Young groundhogs stay in their mother’s burrow until they’re about four weeks old. When they venture outside for the first time, the mama groundhog runs safety drills. She’ll whistle, sending the babies diving and scurrying back into the burrow. It’s good for a groundhog to learn to be careful. Lots of animals eat groundhogs, including coyotes, bobcats and hawks.
- You’ve heard the story. Every February 2, the groundhog peeks out from its burrow. If it sees its shadow, we’re in for six more weeks of winter. If it doesn’t, spring will come early. True story? Not likely. Truth is, most groundhogs celebrate their holiday curled up asleep in their burrows. In mid-February, plants begin greening Missouri’s hillsides, and skinny groundhogs awaken with growling tummies. By then, it won’t matter if the groundhog sees its shadow. It will know for sure that spring will soon be here.