Punxy has Phil, but meet the real deal in Pennsylvania fields and backyards
Who does Bill Murray think he is? His 1993 rom-com radically changed popular understanding of southwestern Pennsylvania’s best-known mythological tale.
Before the movie “Groundhog Day” became a box office hit, Feb. 2 had nothing to do with a time loop that imprisons its temporal captives until they do what eternity intends. Since 1887, that day had been all about predicting the first day of spring.
But even Punxsutawney Phil is just a meteorologically inclined caricature misrepresenting the unseen world of a biological marvel: the whistle pig.
Also known for that tongue twister about tossing wood, French Canadians refer to Marmota monax as “siffleux” (whistle), the sound it makes when sensing danger.
The groundhog is one of nature’s habitat engineers — an adaptive rodent that influences land-based ecosystems throughout eastern United States, Canada and Alaska. Before European colonists cut trees to clear farmland, groundhogs were creatures of woodland edges where they could rapidly climb trees to escape predators. They can still climb, but are more often seen alone in low-cut fields casually munching ground-level foliage.
“They have a thumb-like appendage that helps them to climb,” said Henry Kacprzyk, a biologist at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium in Highland Park. “But they really have no way of foretelling the end of winter.”
With the exception of “that one they grab and pull up from its den in February,” he said, groundhogs are true hibernators. They would rather sleep through winter than prognosticate.
“Down in their burrows, their body temperature drops to 40-45 degrees and they survive on the fat their body stores,” he said. “When the ground around them warms during the longer days of spring, the first thing they do, even before eating, is come out and look for a mate.”
Unlike prairie dogs and other members of the marmot family that gather in close-knit socially complicated colonies, groundhogs live most of their lives alone.
She-chucks mate in their second year. They are not monogamous. Couples shack up in the female’s den throughout the 31- to 32-day gestation. She kicks him out shortly before dropping her litter in April or May.
Litters average three to five pups, but can include up to nine siblings — all born blind, hairless and weighing about 1.5 ounces. In August, fully furred and able to see, they follow mom out into the great big world for the first time.
By September, she recognizes an annoying subterranean failure to launch and chases her young from the burrow. They start their own lives, scraping out dens rarely closer than about 20 yards — often farther — from mom’s hole. As adolescents and adults, groundhogs seldom if ever interact with their parents.
Hiding at home
The familiar mound of dirt at the burrow entrance is only the front door. Tunnels can be expansive — up to 45 feet in length and as deep as 5 feet. The hallways are forked with passages leading to several hidden escape exits and rooms custom designed for sleeping, hibernation nesting, food storage and excrement disposal.
Groundhogs prefer to live in open grasslands and woodland edges where predators can be easily seen from a distance. In Pennsylvania, immature chucks often fall prey to foxes, coyotes and any animal that eats meat including eagles, hawks and other avian predators.
Adult females average nearly 8 pounds; adult males generally weigh more. That’s a heavy load for most regional predators, which are naturally wary of a grownup groundhog’s defenses. After whistling, groundhogs duck and cover in their dens or fight back savagely with beaver-like incisors. The most consistently successful groundhog predator is the automobile.
Groundhogs can be dangerous in other ways.
Livestock break legs after accidentally stepping into a groundhog hole. Agricultural machinery breaks when hitting unseen mounds and burrow entrances, and all that groundhog digging and scraping breaks down the soil causing erosion of financially valuable fields.
Many farmers are OK with licensed hunters reducing groundhog populations. Liberal regulations provide an open season except for two weeks before Christmas when deer seasons are closed.
Want to see one? Go to the Pittsburgh Zoo. But Kacprzyk says they’re not in an exhibit.
“They show up as they do in a lot of places with grassy areas,” he said. “They’re always at Kid’s Kingdom and across the street beside the [Highland Park] reservoir.”
If Punxutawney Phil’s real-life relatives are eating your vegetable garden, they are relatively easy to catch in a live trap placed about 10 feet from a burrow entrance and baited with a cut turnip, tomatoes or their favorite, apples.
Unlike most wildlife, solitary groundhogs naturally spread out, usually avoiding territoriality, overpopulation and inbreeding. Unless relocation spreads a disease, it’s generally safe to release your unwelcome garden raider in a sparse forest or field.
John Hayes: firstname.lastname@example.org