Groundhog Day: Not Just For Bill Murray Fans And Punxsutawney Residents

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - by Martha Hunter and Tish Gailmard

You might call them groundhogs, woodchucks, or even “land beavers” and “whistle pigs” as well. Although it may not be the most reliable way to check the weather forecast these days, Groundhog Day has an interesting history. 

Originating thousands of years ago, people in Germany once used the badger, which they believed had the power to predict when spring would arrive, to decide when to plant their crops. When German settlers arrived in Pennsylvania only to find that there were no badgers, they used the groundhog to predict the start of spring instead. By the time Groundhog Day moved continents, people most likely no longer believed in the badger or groundhog’s powers, but chose to continue the tradition anyway. 

Following this tradition, if the groundhog sees its shadow on Feb. 2, winter’s midpoint, he will become afraid and return to his burrow for the next six weeks until winter is over. If the groundhog does not see his shadow on the other hand, spring is said to be near. 

Outside of the annual ceremony, you might spot a groundhog near woodland or farm areas, its natural habitats where the woodchuck spends its time swimming or climbing trees, a useful trick he uses to avoid predators. The groundhog feasts on greens, such as dandelion, clover, and plantain, or in early spring when greens are not yet available, bark, buds, and twigs. 

Once a year, during the winter, the groundhog hibernates, surviving off its summer fat stores. Other than bats, the groundhog is the only true hibernating animal in the southeast area, although they can also be found throughout most of the United States, ranging as far North as Alaska and southeast all the way to Alabama. During its hibernation period, the groundhog’s heart rate and breathing slows to an alarming rate of one heart beat every four or five minutes and one breath every six minutes. The groundhog’s body temperature plummets as well to only 40 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Due to an unhealed injury, our resident “whistle pig” now resides at the Chattanooga Arboretum and Nature Center where he currently serves as an animal ambassador and participates in many local nature education programs. 


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