By Tom Emery
Punxsutawney Phil may be the most famous groundhog of all. But he’s got plenty of cousins in the Land of Lincoln.
Groundhogs are common across Illinois, particularly in the southern and western parts of the state. One of Illinois’ largest rodents, groundhogs, which are also called “woodchucks” or “whistle pigs,” may revel in their own day on the calendar.
The number of groundhogs seems to be stable across the state. “I’d say they’re holding steady,” said Stan McTaggart, the Wildlife Diversity Program Manager at the Illinois Department of Natural
Resources in Springfield. “There’s nothing that suggests that they’re really going up, and their habitats are probably more tolerant to disturbance than some other animals.”
Chesty and rotund, groundhogs are 20-25 inches long, including the tail, and weigh from seven to fourteen pounds. They prefer areas like crop fields, pastures, or meadows near wooded areas and shy away from flood- prone regions, since they spend much of their lives underground.
They are commonly found along fences, roads and ditches, and in brushy, overgrown patches, though groundhogs
can also survive in more populated areas. “They’ve adapted very well in some urban areas,” said McTaggart. “Traditionally, you think of groundhogs on farmsteads, but they have adapted well in some urban spots.
“Topography is crucial to where a groundhog lives,” continued McTaggart. “They don’t do well in areas with conventional tillage, and they need places that are well-drained.” McTaggart added that some surrounding states, such as Missouri, have more habitat for groundhogs, which increases their numbers.
Favorite foods for groundhogs include grasses, leaves, ferns, and fruit, and they love to raid gardens and fields. They tend to be solitary, and breed in late February or March. The lifespan of an average groundhog is three years. Young groundhogs start searching for their own living areas at only two months.
When Punxsutawney Phil and other celebrity groundhogs are pulled from their quarters, they can get testy, with good reason. Groundhogs are one of the few mammals in Illinois that hibernate, falling into a deep slumber in October or November that lasts until mid-to-late February.
During hibernation, the body temperature of a groundhog can dip from 97 degrees Farenheit to only 34 degrees, and their breathing may drop to one breath every six minutes. In hibernation, a groundhog’s heart beats only four times every minute.
With sharp claws and powerful legs, groundhogs love to dig. Their burrows are surprisingly sophisticated, and normally include toilet chambers. But that penchant for digging can lead to trouble.
“We get a lot of calls from homeowners when groundhogs dig those holes too close to foundations,” remarked McTaggart. “They are also an enemy of farmers, and one reason is that livestock can get hurt when they step in holes dug by groundhogs.”
McTaggart noted that the nuisance calls his office receives for groundhogs “have stayed fairly stable over the last ten years. We’ve had a lot in places like Macon County, where groundhogs have adapted well. But the total numbers of calls are about the same as usual.”
While they look cuddly, groundhogs can have a nasty disposition with people or other animals, and are more than willing to fight a turf war. “When they’re cornered, they can be aggressive,” said McTaggart. “They can stand their ground.”
If threatened, groundhogs will click their razor- sharp teeth and emit a sharp whistle (hence their nickname “whistle pig”) to alert other woodchucks.
Groundhog Day is derived from Candlemas, a Christian-themed mid- winter celebration in Europe with a legend that sunshine on Candlemas meant that forty days of snow and cold were to follow. In Germany, the legend evolved into a superstition that the day was sunny if badgers and similar animals saw their own shadows. German immigrants in Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries imported the belief to America, and the first official commemoration of Groundhog Day was held in Punxsutawney in 1887.
Many zoos mark Groundhog Day with their own resident woodchucks, creating prime photo opportunities. Sometimes, though, celebrity groundhogs could care less. In 1990, the Henson Robinson Zoo in Springfield had to remove one of its groundhogs, Arnold, from the school circuit because of his bad habit of biting.
While some television meteorologists and other critics deride groundhogs for their accuracy – or lack thereof – in weather prediction, the question is usually moot. If a groundhog sees his shadow, then six more weeks of winter are in store, while no shadow means an early spring.
But in much of the nation, six more weeks of winter after February 2 means an end in mid-March – which would be considered an early spring.
In recent years, the groundhog has become an increasing part of American pop culture. The annual celebration in Punxsutawney, Pa. attracts as many as 30,000 onlookers who brave early morning darkness and sub-freezing temperatures to see if Phil sees his shadow. Other groundhogs, such as Staten Island Chuck in New York and General Beauregard Lee in Atlanta, who spends some of his time in his own scale- model Southern mansion, have their own followings.
The state of Illinois has a tie to the 1993 big-screen hit Groundhog Day, as much of the movie was filmed in the Chicago suburb of Woodstock. That city has capitalized on its connection to the movie, building tourism campaigns and creating walking tours of key sites in the film.
Even everyday groundhogs have a reason to smile on February 2. “Groundhogs aren’t a keystone species for anything, like a beaver is in a wetland or a stream,” said McTaggart. “But they certainly have their place. They’re a unique animal.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217- 710-8392 or ilcivilwar@yahoo. com.