Getting to Know the Groundhog

By Samantha Bartram

You know this critter can predict the end of winter, but his hibernation habits and spunky …"This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather." -Phil Conners, Groundhog Day

Our friend Marmota Monax - better known as the groundhog - is one of the most legendary rodents in North America. Roaming a swath of territory extending from Alaska to Alabama, the humble groundhog is held responsible each year for predicting the start of spring (or the end of winter, depending on your perspective). Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil is perhaps the most well-known meteorological marmot; each year, on Feb. 2, tens of thousands of people wait patiently for the sleepy ground squirrel to emerge from his burrow and either lament the cloudy day or be startled by his own shadow. The former is said to mean an early spring is imminent, while the latter supposedly signals six more weeks of dreary winter weather.

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Although the groundhog finds himself in the spotlight once a year, he's not hard to find the other 364 days. Ubiquitous in the backyards, highway medians and fields of nearly half the United States and most of Canada, groundhogs can often be a nuisance to homeowners and farmers.

A Long Winter's Sleep

It's fairly easy to tell if a family of groundhogs has taken up residence on your property. Often they make little effort to conceal themselves - groundhogs can commonly be found out in the open, sunning themselves in a patch of grass or atop a fence post. Or they may leave clues behind, such as chewed wood or plants, with tooth markings that are similar to that of a rabbit, but larger.

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Groundhogs, like most pets and people, are active during the day and retreat to their burrows for a good night's sleep. But the groundhog takes his sleep more seriously than we do: The bristly herbivores are true hibernators, meaning they bulk up in the fall and sleep from roughly October to March. While the groundhog will occasionally snack on a grub or other smallish insect, for the most part they rely on grasses, fruits and nuts to give them a rich fat reserve that will last through the coldest months of winter.

The groundhog has a few tricks up his sleeve when it comes to foraging. "They'll also eat crops and ornamental plants," says Suzie Prange, a wildlife research biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, "and a lot of people don't know they can actually climb trees quite well to eat cherries, apples and other fruits." Groundhogs are perfectly content to forage and fatten up for the better part of the year, reproducing once, preparing for winter hibernation - and intermittently chewing on and burrowing under our decks, patios and trees.

Although groundhogs don't pose much of a threat to our pets, their chewing can be somewhat destructive. Prange says a homeowner's best bet is to work to discourage their entry in the first place. "There's got to be an attractant that's bringing the animal there, whether it's fruit trees or a garden, so one option is to get rid of those." You can also try to exclude the animal from what's attracting it. Generally, that means erecting a fence around tasty garden produce. Still, whether you're in a rural or semi-urban area, groundhogs may be likely visitors.

Hormones or other deterrents, such as tying bundles of human or pet hair to garden stakes, are not effective, Prange says. "Things that scare off an animal for a while don't work forever, especially with groundhogs, which are very intelligent." Your best bet, she says, is deterrence. "Really, you need to exclude them from whatever is attracting them, whether that's wrapping fruit trees with wire or something so they can't climb or gnaw, or putting up fencing so they can't get under or over it."

Predator or Prey?

While there are a number of stories of dogs chasing and treeing groundhogs, the big rodents can be quite spunky when feeling threatened. "They have good eyesight. They're good swimmers and good climbers," Prange says. "I can say I've trapped them before, and the groundhog is the only species that has actually turned around and lunged at me. I don't think it would've actually attacked, but he was standing his ground."

Ultimately, though, groundhogs pose little, if any, threat to pets or livestock, save for the burrows they dig that can prove troublesome for cattle and horses as they move across a pasture area. "The biggest problem with them is that they gnaw on things, eat plants, fruits, vegetables. And they make holes in the ground," Prange says.

Also: 10 Most Dangerous Creatures for Your Pets

Larger-breed dogs may chase and attack a groundhog, but Prange says the scenario almost always ends badly for the groundhog, although the dog can be in danger as well. "Groundhogs do have large incisors like rodents do, so your dog stands a chance of being bitten. A big dog will kill a groundhog, and a small dog probably wouldn't get close enough to get bitten." Cats, on the other hand, are rarely threatened by groundhogs; a cat "probably wouldn't have anything to do with it, and a groundhog won't go out of its way to attack if he's not threatened."

As far as disease goes, Prange says groundhogs sometimes will contract roundworm as an intermediate host, but other ailments are rarely an issue. "If your dog is bitten, there's basically no danger of roundworm. The dog would have to consume the animal, but there are lots of ways dogs can get roundworms - consuming other vermin, feces, et cetera." She adds that "all animals can have rabies, but rabies in groundhogs would be very rare."

While the groundhog may not threaten your pets, it can be in danger from other predators. Baby and adolescent groundhogs are a tasty snack for many birds of prey; coyotes, bobcats and occasionally foxes will try their hand at nabbing full-grown groundhogs for lunch. If you spot groundhogs in your yard or neighborhood, Prange says, it's likely a good sign that predators are not afoot. "Be happy you don't have coyotes in your yard!"

She adds: "Groundhogs are widespread, and they're just one species these [predators] eat - coyotes and bobcats are very generalist in what they take. There's voles, rabbits, squirrels and everything else - they won't go in just to get a groundhog." That's good news for pet owners.

The bottom line: If you find groundhogs on your property, depending on the time of year, they're probably there simply to eat, burrow and reproduce or hibernate for the winter - not to bother your pets. And who knows? Your resident groundhog just may give you the inside scoop on how soon spring is coming.

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