All About Groundhogs and a Brief History of Groundhog Day

By: John Moriarty

January 27, 2020

Category: Nature Notes

Groundhog Day originally had nothing to do with groundhogs. It started long ago in Europe as the pagan festival of Imbolc marking the start of spring. It then became known as Candlemas by early Christians who believed a sunny day meant more cold weather and snow were coming.

Next, Germans added animals – mainly badgers – to the legend by declaring it sunny if the animals saw their shadows.

Finally, this legend was brought to the U.S. by German immigrants to Pennsylvania who adopted the groundhog as their animal of choice to see its shadow. The first official Groundhog Day was held on February 2, 1887 by a group of Punxsutawney businessmen. 

Squirrel’s the Word

Groundhogs – also known as marmots, whistle pigs and, most commonly, woodchucks – are the largest member of the squirrel family in Minnesota. They are a type of ground squirrel that is more closely related to the 13-lined ground squirrel (striped gopher) than the gray squirrel. They are up to 24 inches long, including their short tail, and can weigh up to 4 pounds.

Where Do Groundhogs Live?

A groundhog peeks its head out of it's hole in a grassy area.
"Standing guard" by bgolub is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0​​​​.

In the wild, woodchucks are found throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada. In Minnesota they are found statewide. They live in all Three Rivers parks, though they are not always common.

Woodchucks live in a variety of habitats but prefer open woods and woodland edges. They dig tunnel systems that have a main entrance and several escape holes. They dig their main living chamber in such a way that it stays dry even if there is heavy rain. 

Woodchucks are not aggressive and will quickly flee down their hole if frightened. They give a high-pitched warning call when scared. This is how they earned the nickname whistle pig.

Breeding

Females are normally 2 years old before they breed. They are pregnant for about one month and have a litter of three to six young. They only have one litter per year. 

Outside of the breeding season, woodchucks are solitary.

Eating Habits

They feed on green plants, including grasses, tree leaves and flowers. They really enjoy vegetable gardens, making them a pest to gardeners and farmers.

Will Groundhogs See Their Shadows in Minnesota?

Captive woodchucks that are paraded out on Groundhog Day cannot help but see their shadows because of all the TV cameras and lights. In Minnesota, however, groundhogs very rarely if ever see their shadows on February 2 because they are still in deep hibernation underground.

Groundhogs hibernate in their tunnels from October to late February or mid-March. The date they emerge varies from year to year depending on weather. Males are the first to come out in the spring to begin searching for a mate. 

While we know groundhogs will almost never see their shadows on Groundhog Day, we also know that in Minnesota, we’re probably still in for several more weeks of cold weather. 

 

Archive image: "Groundhog" by TheGreenHeron is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

About the Author

 a man in a hat and tan collared shirt holding a turtle upside down and pointing to it's underbelly.

John Moriarty is the Senior Manager of Wildlife at Three Rivers Park District and has been with the Park District for 15 years. He has been involved in many of the wildlife restoration efforts and initiated the snake and butterfly efforts. John has led several projects to increase prairie habitat in the Park District. John likes exploring natural areas and looking for all types of plants and animals, but especially turtles.

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