This weekend we are going to look at the lowly groundhog, or marmota monax.
It is a creature of many names, groundhog, whistle pig, pig, woodchuck, or just chuck, but it is most commonly called a groundhog.
The groundhog is a relatively large (by rodent standards) animal weighing about four to nine pounds. They are generally a dark brown or grizzled color with a short, darker brown or almost black tail.
They hibernate usually from around October to March, but depending on the weather and availability of food may be active later or earlier. They reproduce shortly after emerging from hibernation and have young around May or early June. I call the young ones “chucklets.”
While most wild animals in our part of the country are nocturnal, or crepuscular (active around dawn and dusk), groundhogs are strictly diurnal, preferring to hide out in their burrows when predators are most active.
The groundhog is the only animal I know that has its own quasi-holiday, Groundhog Day, which is observed every year on Feb. 2. On that day the big rodents supposedly come out of their hole and if they see their shadow it means six more weeks or winter. If they don’t see their shadow it means an early spring. In any event, spring usually follows about six weeks later. The most famous of these animal prognosticators is Punxsutawny Phil, from Pennsylvania, but there are other, lesser known ones, including Buckeye Chuck.
Groundhogs are powerful diggers and live in burrows of their own making, and their abandoned burrows often provide homes for other small animals. I also imagine over the course of millennia that groundhogs literally “turn over” the landscape through their burrowing, bringing subsoil to the surface to become topsoil, and leaving nutrients behind in the subsoil. That sort of makes them nature’s rototiller.
Groundhogs are a species that has adapted well to human activity. Despite the name “woodchuck,” they are not animals of the deep woods, and were not commonly found in pre-settlement Ohio. To observe first-hand just how comfortable they are living close to humans, just drive along Main Street in Pomeroy during any summer afternoon to watch families of groundhogs feeding along the walking path.
Their habits of burrowing under buildings, houses and decks have frustrated many homeowners, and their burrowing activity, and eating of agricultural crops continually raise the ire of farmers.
Generally they are very secretive animals and will run (waddle) back to their holes at the first sign of danger. They are prey to most larger predators including dogs and coyotes, but are tough and if cornered will defend themselves with sharp teeth.
I have encountered groundhogs along the road and sometimes they can be very aggressive, even towards vehicles (which usually doesn’t work out too well for the groundhog). I have been running along country roads and have had them stand their ground or even chase me a short distance. Yeah I know I outweigh them by about a 20:1 ratio, but when it comes battling a little ball of fur and teeth, they don’t have anything I want bad enough to fight them over. I give them plenty of space in those occasions.
Anyhow, when you consider the big picture I have the advantage over old marmota momax. Their habit of digging burrows in pastures and hayfields, and eating crops and forage, have made them popular targets over the years.
Patient hunters stalking field borders or laying wait over burrow sites are often rewarded with a big, fat groundhog or two. Hunters usually use rifles chambered in anything from 17 to 24 caliber. Popular rimfire choices include the .17 HMR and .22 Magnum, and the ever-popular .22 Long Rifle.
With the .22 Long Rifle you’ll want to make sure to get close and limit yourself to head shots to prevent the groundhog from making it back to its hole.
Although they can be taken with almost any centerfire rifle, most people generally use a small-caliber, flat-shooting, bolt-action rifle topped with a telescopic sight. Common choices include the .22-250 Remington or the ever-popular .223 Remington.
You can eat them, but to me they have a gamey taste. Why this is the case I don’t know, because groundhogs only eat the best stuff, clover, alfalfa, etc. They should be delicious, but they still have this wild taste to them. If you plan on eating them I would suggest waiting a few months until the young ones have grown a bit and the adults have fattened back up from their winter nap.
However, I have heard from several hunters that they haven’t seen the number of groundhogs out in the country that they used to see in the past, presumably due to pressure by coyotes. I tend to agree with this assessment, but it remains to be seen if this is a long-term issue or something that will eventually reach some equilibrium.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org