Groundhog Day in Pelham, TN

Tuesday Topic: Nature (For Groundhog’s Day)

I grew up with groundhogs. They were commonly distributed around the property I describe in my “I Grew Up on a Farm in Virginia,” though I have not mentioned them before. On the farm, groundhogs were a nuisance. They loved to dig a borrow in the middle of a soy bean field or along the edge of a pasture. As soon as the soy bean plants sprouted, the groundhogs began to graze. In addition to attacking crops and gardens, in open fields their dens could cave in and causing injury to cattle and damage to farm equipment.

groundhog, Tennessee, apple, upright

Grover in the back yard finishing an apple.

Their damage was considered sufficient for the county to offer a bounty of twenty-five cents for each groundhog killed. I never collected the bounty, but groundhogs were the main target of summer hunting.

Later, when I went off to college, I spent summers working for Richmond city’s park department in one of the nature centers. Here, among other assorted furry and scaly critters, we had a groundhog. He had been brought to the center as a young pup. We fed him an assortment of veggies from the local market and he soon accepted us as his surrogate family. He became quite tame, but I cannot recommend groundhogs as pets.

Like many rodents, their large incisors, upper and lower, grow continuously, and therefore they will chew on any wood material at hand. That can be hard on furniture.

groundhogs, family, woodchucks

Grover’s Family out for a late summer walk.

Fast forward to 2008, just after we were settled here in Tennessee, from the kitchen window I saw a healthy groundhog. Something spooked him and he ducked under the old smokehouse in the backyard. A little investigation revealed a well-established den with an entrance behind the smokehouse. I am not sure why, but I named him (?) Grover. There was some discussion that it might be Geraldine! Now, eight years later, they have added an entrance in the front of the shed, and we have seen as many as a family of four grazing in the back yard. Since I don’t have a garden that they visit, and there are no cows or tractors running around the smokehouse, we have lived in state of mutual curiosity. Of course, the smokehouse may just disappear into a groundhog-induced sinkhole!

cat, groundhog

Mitzi the Cat was fascinated by Grover–for the first summer.

There is an apple tree beside the smokehouse, and in late summer, Grover can be seen, sitting upright, holding and eating apples.

The first year, our cat took a serious interest in watching them, sitting beside the sink, looking out the kitchen window. She has since lost interest. Groundhogs are not terribly active, moving around slowly, grazing deliberately, frequently sitting up to scan for danger. Apparently, they cannot see in through the window, and pay no attention to us until we step outside, then the groundhog becomes a high-speed wooly-worm bounding for the safety of the den.

Groundhogs typically live four to six years, longer in captivity when well cared for. They are an animal that truly hibernates over winter. They disappear in late fall, presumably to a warm section of their burrow and reappear in spring, about the time the jonquils bloom. A healthy adult can weigh up to nine pounds. About the time the young are born, the father takes a vacation for a couple of months, returning about the time the youngsters are ready to venture out into the world. The adults appear to teach them what to eat and the code of behavior for successful groundhog lives.

groundhog, marmota, marmot, woodchuck

Grover peers from his front door. A piece of fabric from the shed makes a convenient door curtain.

Now we look forward to their emergence from under the smokehouse in the spring—that is when we celebrate Groundhog’s Day.

Natural History

The groundhog, also called a woodchuck or a whistlepig, is a rodent that belongs to the Family Sciuridae, which includes squirrels. They are part of a group of large ground squirrels call marmots. The name “woodchuck” is adapted from an American Indian name pronounced “wuchak.” Another Indian word for them was “monax” which has been incorporated into their scientific name. The name “whistlepig” is based on the sharp alerting whistle adults make when they sense danger. Females give birth to two to four pups, or “chucklings” in the spring. They grow to adulthood and strike out on their own by the end of their first summer.

The groundhog is common throughout eastern and central North America, including Canada and even ranges into Alaska.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom:        Animalia

Phylum:           Chordata (Vertebrata when I took biology!)

Class:               Mammalia

Order:             Rodentia

Family:           Sciuridae (Squirrels)

Genus:             Marmota

Species:           M. monax


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