February 2nd is Groundhog Day and, as legend has it, if a groundhog emerges from his den on this day and sees his shadow we will have six more weeks of winter. The roots of this legend may be historically connected to Candlemas day, an early Christian holiday at the mid-point between Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox when clergy would light candles to ward of winter. This was also a time to check your stock of feed and winter provisions to ensure that you had enough to feed your family through the remainder of winter. You can imagine during times of limited resources and rough winters how superstitions could come into play. You can hear the warning in this farmer’s proverb: "A farmer should, on Candlemas Day, have half his corn and half his hay."
But how much do you know about the legendary Groundhog? The groundhog is a rodent in the family Scuiruidae (the squirrel family); the groundhog is also commonly known as the woodchuck or the “whistle-pig”. You may wonder why someone might call this animal a “whistle-pig”. But, if you've ever heard an alarmed groundhog, you'd know- they let out a high pitched warning squeal!
Groundhogs are true hibernators so despite the "holiday," we shouldn’t expect to see any peeping out of their burrows this weekend. Groundhogs build complex burrow systems beneath supportive structures such as rocks, stumps or buildings where they hide from predators, raise young, and over winter. Our local groundhogs should be snugly nestled in their winter homes and are unlikely to emerge any time soon, as they normally hibernate from October to March or April.
So what does hibernation mean for groundhogs? During hibernation body metabolism slows down and groundhogs may only emit one breath every 5 or 6 minutes. Heart rate is reduced from 80 or 90 beats per minute to 3 beats per minute during hibernation. Groundhogs survive the winter hibernation by building up fat stores and conserving energy. A hibernating groundhog’s body temperature can drop as low as 3 degrees Celsius, just above freezing!
In the spring when the days become longer groundhogs emerge from their winter slumber and begin foraging for fruits and grasses, as well as plants and flowers in vegetable gardens, all in preparation for mating season. This foraging behavior, along with their industrious burrowing, has given these rodents a pesky reputation amongst landowners. They are well adapted for digging and have powerful curved claws, which they will use in defense if cornered. Groundhogs have even been known to occasionally climb trees, although not as skillfully as many of their squirrel relatives.
After the cold weather we have had this winter, many people who subscribe to the legend may be hoping for a cloudy shadowless day on Feb 2nd. But most weather experts agree that we now have better tools than groundhog sightings for weather prediction, but the holiday does still mark the mid-point of winter and has become a day to celebrate an animal that gets little recognition throughout the rest of the year.
For more information on past predictions visit the NOAA’s website:
Hannah joined the 21st Century Parks in 2013 as an Interpretive Ranger, responsible for creating and delivering interpretive programs to the public. As a native Kentuckian, Hannah has a passion for educating herself and others about Kentucky’s complex ecosystem. Hannah is a graduate of the University of Louisville where she studied Biology and English. Hannah in currently enrolled in continuing studies at U of L and has just completed an Ichthyology course. In her free time she enjoys long walks in the woods with her husband and her dog.
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