Wild Georgia: Groundhog Day shines light on lesser-known animal

Credit: Susan Sam

Credit: Susan Sam

Groundhogs will have their brief annual fling in the spotlight on Thursday. On that day, Feb. 2, celebrity groundhogs Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania and Gen. Beauregard Lee in Georgia supposedly will predict the weather for the next several weeks.

According to legend, if the creatures see their shadows when they emerge from their burrows, winter will persist for six more weeks; if they don’t see their shadows, spring will be early.

Groundhog Day may be a tongue-in-cheek holiday, but it brings fame — although fleeting — to a creature that usually gets little respect the rest of the year. There’s even some confusion over its name: Most people in Georgia probably know it as the woodchuck. Some also call it the “whistle pig” because of its high-pitched whistle that warns fellow groundhogs of possible danger.

Occurring mostly in North Georgia, the groundhog — or woodchuck, if you prefer — is a member of the squirrel family and one of Georgia’s largest rodents, reaching 2 feet long. Stocky and low-slung, it has coarse, reddish brown fur, a broad head, small ears, short tail, tiny eyes and short legs. Sometimes, it’s mistaken for a beaver.

It eats mostly green plant matter, which sometimes makes it a bane to gardeners. It likes open forests and rocky outcrops but also likes embankments, hillsides, kudzu patches, earthen dams, retaining walls and foundations, where its digging may cause structural damage.

Groundhogs, in fact, are great excavators. They dig a complex network of tunnels — 4-5 feet deep and 20-30 feet long — to raise their two to nine babies and protect themselves from predators. The complex may have a main entrance and several hidden entrances that allow the animal to escape from fast-moving foxes, coyotes and other predators. In digging a tunnel complex, groundhogs may displace 3 tons of dirt.

It is these tunnels that groundhogs retreat to in late fall to begin their long winter nap that may last four months or more. They will breed in March and April.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon is first quarter Saturday. Mercury is low in the east just before sunrise. Venus is very low in the west just after sunset. Mars is high in the east at dark. Jupiter is in the south at sunset and sets about four hours later. Saturn is very low in the southwest just after dark.

Charles Seabrook can be reached at charles.seabrook@yahoo.com.