Albert was the name we gave to the juvenile groundhog that came with raccoons, fawns, and a skunk that had been illegally kept in a family house. I’m certain that the person that had these animals did not mean them harm, but many wild animals imprint on their caretakers. Imprinting is one way young learn what they are supposed to be. This is great if your biological mom or dad is raising you. Not so good if you are a raccoon and think you are supposed to live, fight and eventually mate with a human. That is dangerous for humans and wild animals.
Groundhogs are in the rodent family. This is the same family that has squirrels, beavers, mice, and rats. They, Marmota monax, are a type of rodent known as a marmot, which is closely related to ground squirrels. Groundhogs are giant ground squirrels.
Adult groundhogs average 20″ long with 6-7″ tail, 6-12 lbs, and live in the wild for 3-6 years. They have brown fur, a round body with a small bushy tail. Their short, strong legs have curved claws for burrowing. The small, round eyes and ears are located on the top of a flat head and, like all rodents, have two long, ever-growing incisors. They have an extensive range and can be found all over North America. They are found from northern Alabama to northern Canada—and some are even found in Alaska.
Groundhogs, as an edge species, like transitional areas. That means they prefer the area where a forest or woodland meets a well-vegetated open field or meadow. Groundhogs spend most of their time underground in complex burrow systems, which they dig in dry, well-drained soil, but they are accomplished climbers and swimmers. These skills help them to escape predators that don’t climb or swim as well.
As all of our ward attendants know, groundhogs eat a lot and therefore poop a lot. They eat approximately 1/3 of their weight in vegetation each day. In the summer and fall, groundhogs increase their consumption to accumulate fat reserves, which they use to survive through their winter hibernation period.
Typically they are diurnal (active during the day) from spring to fall. They are most active during the early morning and early evening hours (crepuscular) when they emerge from their burrows to gather food. They usually eat fruits, vegetables, flowers, bark, and clover. Albert was quite fond of my carrots (I’m allergic so quite happy to share!), but he was oh so cute eating a tomato. Although one of his cousins might not have been so cute eating it out of my garden. Farmers consider them a crop raider. Groundhogs prefer tender, young greens like soybeans, corn, and family gardens. Unlike turtles that might eat overripe tomatoes or melons, groundhogs seek out the best food and cabbages in the garden.
Likewise, the impressive burrow can be a nuisance. The extensive burrows can break a tractor axle. These homes can be from 8 to 66 feet long, with multiple exits and a number of chambers. The burrows can be on several levels with different uses. A deep burrow can be for hibernating with another section for a summer home where they can exit more easily. Burrows have separate rooms for defecation—or bathrooms. Groundhogs aren’t limited to just one home and may move from burrow to burrow.
Groundhogs are true hibernators. They go into a dormant state where their body temperature and heart rate fall dramatically. That means the heart rate can fall 80 to 5 beats per minute and their body temp from 99dF to 40dF. They hibernate for about three months from late fall until late winter or early spring. The males will wake up in February and start to prepare for the mating season. The male’s territory typically includes several female burrows which they must defend. They also scout out the burrows to find out if that female is still there. After determining where his potential mates are, the male then returns to his burrow to sleep for another month or so until early March when it’s time to mate.
Groundhogs are well set up for contagious pandemic viruses. They are true loners. Mothers give birth to 2-4 kits, who remain with the mother for two months before becoming independent. In short, even their mom kicks them out shortly after weaning. They were asocial before it was mandated. Unlike the prairie dog cousins, they only seek out others when it is time to mate. This is the source of their relative fame: Groundhog Day. February 2, Groundhog Day is unique to the U.S. It is said that if the groundhog sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.
This mythical weather prediction is probably due to an uncanny knack for good timing. They have to know just when to emerge from hibernation to mate so that their offspring will have the best chance of survival. Most matings occur in a ten-day period in early March. Too late, and the offspring can’t get enough weight to survive the winter. If the babies are born too early, the female doesn’t have enough food to feed them.”
Groundhogs came to predict the arrival of spring when Europeans moved to America. Groundhog day may be linked to the Germanic tradition of Candlemas Day, a Christian feast day. According to the folklore, a sunny Candlemas Day means a longer winter. In Europe, however, the animal used was generally a hedgehog or a badger. In the U.S., hedgehogs or badgers were rarer, and the groundhog was used.
Most wildlife that comes to Guardian Animal is kept wild so it can be released. We have a strict rule about not naming them, so we do not get attached, but Albert was different. He was imprinted before he came to us, and therefore, he cannot be safely released. So Albert was special, and most of my staff could handle him well. He did have a few that he did not care for. I have a story of Albert bossing a staff member around when I came in and scooped him up and put Albert up for them. Albert will be missed, but he will have a great home. He will be an educational ambassador for groundhogs and rodents. The Barker Farm built a great new enclosure for him, and he will be a part of their petting zoo in Ironton. I predict they will spoil him with fresh fruits and veggies, just like we did.