Natures’ Corner – Groundhogs, Our Only True Hibernators

Article courtesy of Jeanie Martin

We know them by a few different names – groundhogs, gophers, woodchucks and whistlepigs. I often see them beside the roads here in Haw Creek standing up on their back legs and chewing wild greens. They also eat acorns, fruit, snails, insects and any garden plants they can steal. The groundhog prefers open country and the edges of woodland. With development and clearing of forests, habitat for these critters has expanded and the groundhog population is probably higher now than it was before the arrival of European settlers in North America.

Groundhogs are the largest member of the squirrel family and have been a source of food, clothing, medicine, and music for generations of Appalachian folk. When I worked as a home health nurse in Henderson County, a few of my elderly patients sung the praises of groundhog meat. The fat would be rendered out before cooking and was used for medicine. People rubbed it on their bodies and claimed it was good for achy joints and for chapped skin in the winter. I was gifted a small jar of groundhog grease one year. I infused some medicinal herbs into it and that salve was one of the best I ever made. Stinky too. Groundhog skins have been made into banjo heads and my friend Doug Elliott has shoe-laces made from the tanned hide of a groundhog. What a useful creature for mountain people.

The groundhog’s burrow is cleverly excavated. The main entrance is usually under a stump, a big rock or sometimes your house. The main tunnel can go six feet underground and be up to 40 feet long with a sleeping chamber, toilet chamber and several escape exits. The burrow is used for sleeping, rearing young and hibernating.

During the fall the groundhog is putting on the last bit of fat it will need before retiring to its burrow to hibernate for the winter. Several individuals may live in one burrow. They are the only true hibernators in these parts and around first frost a groundhog will begin a long winter’s sleep. It lowers its heart rate to 4 beats per minute and it lowers its body temperature down to 38 degrees. Living on its fat stores, it will lose up to half of its body weight by the time it wakes up in late winter or early spring. The breeding season is from early March through mid-April. One month later 2-6 kits are born blind and hairless. They are weaned and ready to build their own burrows by 6 weeks of age.

In the wild, groundhogs can live up to six years with two or three being the average. Coyotes, fox, hawk, bobcats and dogs are their predators and cars hit many as they graze beside the road. At this time of the year in Haw Creek groundhogs should be in a deep sleep dreaming of spring sunshine and dandelions greens. Have a peaceful and restful winter yourselves dear neighbors.