The Lowly Groundhog: Long May They Live

 

by Walter Brasch

 

Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, Thursday.

That means there will be an additional six weeks of winter.

Or, it means there will be an early Spring.

It doesn’t make much difference. Phil has an accuracy rate of about 39 percent, according to the StormFax Weather Almanac. That’s probably about the same as TV weather forecasters.

StormFax has tracked Phil’s predictions since 1897, the year he (with the help of the Punxsatawney Spirit) made his first trip to Gobbler’s Knob, about two miles from the town in the northwest part of Pennsylvania.

The name, Punxsutawney, is probably derived from an Algonquin or Delaware Indian name which loosely translates as “village of sand fleas.” The name, Phil, is a tribute to Philip Freas, a staff writer for the Spirit, who wrote dozens of stories about what would become one of the most enduring tourism attractions in the country.

The festival is based upon a German superstition and a Celtic celebration. The superstition relates to hibernating animals; when they leave their den, if they see their shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter; if they don’t, it’s an early spring. The Celtic festival (known as Imbolc) was midway between the winter solstice (usually about Dec. 21–22), and the Spring Equinox (usually March 20). The date set for Phil’s annual prediction is always Feb. 2, midway between the beginning of Winter and the beginning of Spring. This, of course, means that among the millions who now watch the ceremony in person, by webcam, or on the TV news, none are groundhogs. Except for Phil, they hibernate in well-constructed underground burrows from October to early Spring.

The name, woodchuck, an alternate for groundhog, is probably from “wojak,” a Native American word.

The second most famous ground hog is Gus. Unlike the furry Phil, who lives with his wife, Phyllis, in a library for most of the year, Gus is a cute little animatronic animal whose primary mission is to lure Pennsylvanians to spend money on the state lottery. Television commercials have assured Gus of his own celebrity. However, unlike Phil, he doesn’t make personal appearances.

Groundhogs in captivity have life spans that average 10–14 years. However, faced by several predators—including wolves, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, eagles and man—groundhogs usually live only two or three years in the wild.

Phil and Gus are just about the only two groundhogs that people feel any warmth for. The Pennsylvania Game Commission treats groundhogs as nuisance animals. Every day but Sunday is open season on the animals that weigh only about five to nine pounds. Even a cursory look at Google shows that several hundred thousand posts about groundhogs focus upon ways to kill them, with thousands of people bragging about how many they killed, and with what kind of trap, gas, or gun. There is no fur or meat value to humans.

Hunters and trappers kill groundhogs near roads and fields, and go from farm to farm. However, hunters and trappers often believe that in their own enjoyment of killing a gentle species that poses no threat to humans they may be doing some kind of a service to mankind. Many believe that killing groundhogs will keep them from overpopulating the environment. However, such is not the case. “Studies show that even when all the woodchucks are trapped out of an area, others from surrounding areas quickly move into the vacated niche,” says Laura J. Simon, field director for the Urban Wildlife Program of the Humane Society of the United States. But there is also another problem. In Spring and Summer, baby groundhogs live in the underground tunnels. Killing their mother will lead them to starve to death.

Natural predators keep the balance of nature to reduce overpopulation. Like most animals, groundhogs have a sense that allows them to breed to keep the species alive in areas of extreme danger; as the danger is removed, instead of breeding, groundhogs will actually stabilize population growth.  Hunters and farmers claim groundhogs leave holes that can damage tractors or cause injuries to horses and livestock. However, the perceived reality of that happening may be far greater than the actual risk, according to Simon.

The second major reason people kill groundhogs is because of fear. “At least half the calls we get,” says Simon, “is because people are afraid that groundhogs will attack them.” But, groundhogs, says Simon, “are benign shy animals that will retreat to their burrows when they see humans, even small children, coming close.”

The third major reason people want to kill groundhogs is because the animals, in search for food, will destroy gardens. Ironically, the deforestation of America has allowed groundhogs to flourish. They prefer to build their complex multi-level burrows on open ground at the edge of forests. This open view gives them protection from predators, while providing sources for their appetite for grub, grasshoppers, earthworms, berries, and various fruits and some vegetables; for water, they eat grasses and leaves. But as agricultural land is also destroyed to allow the construction of everything from parking lots to condos to supermarkets, groundhogs, like most species, are shoved from their own homes. That’s when homeowners see the holes in their lawns and some garden crops chewed up. Animal-friendly gardeners will plant extra so animals and humans can share the food.

Some of the methods to get rid of groundhogs cause more injuries to humans than to groundhogs. People have also used broken glass or poured concrete into the entrance and exit holes of the burrows. But, these methods, says Simon, don’t work.

There are several non-lethal humane ways to effectively discourage the animals. One of the best is to enclose the garden in a three foot high mesh fence, “with the top part left wobbly to discourage the animals from climbing,” says Simon. To discourage groundhogs from burrowing under the garden and then coming up to munch, the Humane Society advises homeowners to purchase a four-foot tall roll of green garden fencing. The lower 12 inches of mesh should be bent at a 90 degree angle and run parallel to the ground, away from the garden, to create a “false bottom,” and secured to the ground by landscaping staples. Homeowners can also discourage groundhogs by placing objects that reflect sunlight and continually move in the breeze, such as tethered Mylar party balloons. Simon says ones with big eyes “seem to work best because they create a predator image.”

Groundhogs and people can co-exist, with neither harming the other. Killing groundhogs just because we can is never a good reason.

[For further information about humane methods to deal with groundhogs, contact the Humane Society at www.hsus.org or by phone at 203-393-1050.  Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist. His latest book is the critically acclaimed mystery thriller, Before the First Snow.]

   

Tags: Groundhog, Groundhog Day woodchuck, Punxsutawney Phil, hunters, trappers, Humane Society of the United States, burrowing animals, Imbolc, Celts, Germans (all tags)

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