Today, we honor the humble groundhog. With fewer and fewer businesses celebrating it as a paid holiday, most of us trudged off to work this morning barely aware there was any cause for commemoration. It’s not until later today, when we scan the news headlines and see poor Punxsutawney Phil being thrust skyward by some doofus Pennsylvanian in top hat and tails, that we realize we forgot to buy our loved ones an appropriate gift.
And once again, the groundhog goes unappreciated.
Most of us know the story of how the First Groundhog was born in a manger on a February morn thousands of years ago. Most of us remember learning how he was granted supernatural prognostication powers not equaled until Al Roker predicted he’d be blown off a balcony if he stepped outside during a hurricane. Most of us know he’s a plain, homely rodent — not dissimilar in appearance to The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams — forgotten for 364 days a year.
But on this one special day, in the middle of winter, he steps front and center to claim the spotlight. Routed from his burrow, he looks at the frozen ground around him, trying to figure what season it is. If he sees his shadow, he notices he’s put on a few pounds over the holidays and will have to do some serious springtime dieting to be ready for swimsuit season. If he doesn’t see his shadow, it’s probably because, as a relative of the mole, he’s practically blind. Local news crews then interpret the event to mean we’ll either have six more weeks of winter, or that a savior has been born who is Christ the Lord.
What, though, do we really know about the groundhog? Allow me to tell you a little bit of his story.
The groundhog (Latin name Marmota monax, though most refer to each other with a guttural grunt) is also known as a woodchuck or a land-beaver. He’s part of a family of large ground squirrels that also includes the yellow-bellied marmot and the hoary (or slutty) marmot. He is strictly a North American creature, which is why primitive Europeans and Asians use things like satellite imagery and sophisticated radar instead of chubby groundlings to “predict” the weather.
The groundhog roams the continent from Alaska to Alabama, though scientists have yet to figure out how he journeys so widely. Some speculate that their elaborate system of burrows includes high-speed rail. Others figure that since they all look pretty much alike, they only offer the illusion of being well-travelled.
The animals are well-adapted for digging, with short but powerful limbs and curved, thick claws. Their spine is curved and their tail is relatively short. They are covered with two coats of fur: a dense grey undercoat and a longer coat of banded hairs that give the groundhog’s coif its distinctive “frosted” appearance. Again, not unlike Stephanie Abrams.
Groundhogs usually live only two to three years in the wild, or considerably less if nearby wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and bears have any say in the matter. They themselves are mostly herbivorous, feasting on wild grasses, berries and nuts, with the occasional grub or snail thrown in for a protein boost.
With excellent burrowing skills that largely offset deficiencies in just about every other aptitude, the groundhog will literally hog the ground, taking over huge swathes of the subterranean world to sleep, rear its young and hibernate. It is the most solitary of marmots, though several individuals may occupy the same burrow as long as the others keep it down and promise to pay their portion of the utility bill.
Perhaps the only talent that rivals their ability to move huge amounts of dirt is their ability to enter into a true hibernation for up to six months at a time. From October until as late as April, they inter themselves deep beneath the frost line, allowing them to maintain a temperature well above freezing during the winter. Their metabolism slows dramatically as they live off body fat accumulated during the previous autumn. Only once during this long six-month night do they have to emerge to go to the bathroom and, unfortunately, it’s usually in the first few days of February.
Groundhogs are accomplished swimmers and will often climb trees to escape predators, survey their surroundings, or just hang out. When threatened, their primary defense is to “go underground,” crashing with an old college roommate, not using credit cards or email accounts, and going completely off the grid. If they find themselves under an imminent threat, they may offer a tenacious defense using their two large incisors and front claws. Or they may simply allow themselves to be eaten, exacting a post-mortem revenge on their enemy that you do not want to smell.
Most groundhogs breed in their second year of life, though a precocious few get it on before their first birthday. A mated pair will stay together in the same den throughout the 31-day gestation period, but as the birth of the young approaches, the male remembers an urgent meeting with his accountant and vacates the den. One litter is produced annually, numbering from two to six blind, hairless and helpless babies. Within six weeks, however, they’re ready to move out and live on their own (teenagers, take note).
Their interaction with humans is mostly involuntary, as the desperately wiggling Phil will happily demonstrate on national TV this morning. If raised in captivity, they can be socialized with relative ease, especially if you have a few fingers to spare. Doug Schwartz, employed as the groundhog trainer at the Staten Island Zoo (and New Yorkers wonder why their state is facing a $10 billion deficit), says the animal “is known for their aggression … they’re natural impulse is to kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly.”
Other unwilling contributions to humanity include medical research, where they’re dosed with a strain of Woodchuck Hepatitis B virus that mutates into liver cancer, and, surprisingly, in archeology. At the Ufferman Site in Ohio, they’ve excavated numerous artifacts from the loose soil, including significant numbers of ancient human bones, pottery and tools, while human archeologists sit around on lawn chairs admiring their effort.
And then there’s the whole Groundhog Day routine that we’ve come to know and tolerate. With what’s being called a monster snowstorm bearing down on the Midwest and Northeast for the next few days, we’ll watch as not only Punxsutawney Phil but also Wiarton Willie, Balzac Billie, Buckeye Chuck, Shubenacadie Sam and Dunkirk Dave are yanked from their lairs. They might look for their shadows but the blizzard of the century will keep them from seeing beyond the snoots on their face, and they’ll declare that winter is not yet over. Duh.