Do Woodchucks (Groundhogs) Hibernate? (And Are They Good For Anything?)

For some a pest or a nuisance, for others, like me, a fascinating and adorable animal from the squirrel family. Woodchucks or groundhogs (Marmota monax) go by many, often funny names. The whistlepig, chuck, whistler, monax, weenusk, red monk, thickwood badger, siffleux, groundpig or wood-shock are all names for woodchucks.

They’ve been popularised by The Groundhog Day ceremony held at Punxsutawney in western Pennsylvania, on February 2 of each year, centering around a semi-mythical groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil, and by the movie Groundhog Day from 1993. The movie is now a cult classic and is one of my favorite movies of all time.

But let’s get back to our question at hand…

Do woodchucks hibernate? Yes, they are obligate hibernators that will enter hibernation at the same time every year, in October, regardless of outside temperature and food availability. They prepare for hibernation by adding massive weight that will sustain them until March or April when they come out of hibernation and emerge from their winter burrows.

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As you may have noticed, woodchucks or groundhogs, usually come out of hibernation in March or April but The Groundhog Day ceremony is held on February 2 which means that the officials yank Punxsutawney Phil groundhog out of his sleep and his burrow and present the poor fella to massive crowds to observe if he will see his shadow or not.

If Phil sees his shadow due to clear weather, it will retreat to his den and winter will persist for 6 more weeks; but if he does not see his shadow because of cloudiness; spring will arrive early.

It’s like someone waking you up at 3 am to catch that early red-eye flight.

All kidding aside, woodchucks do come out of hibernation a bit early, to scope out the neighborhood and potential partners only to return back to burrow to sleep some more.

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Woodchuck Hibernation Facts

In the traditional definition of hibernation, woodchucks are considered the largest “true hibernators” because bears, instead of hibernating, fall into a deep sleep called torpor.

I already mentioned that woodchucks hibernate from October to March or April. In preparation for hibernation, they will fatten up to reach their maximum weight shortly before entering the winter sleep because they’ll lose as much as half their body weight by February only to emerge from hibernation with some remaining body fat to live on until food is abundant again.

During hibernation, their heart rate will drop to 4–10 beats per minute and the breathing rate falls to an amazing one breath every six minutes!

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Woodchuck Burrows

Woodchucks construct burrows in well-drained soils, and most will make summer (located near food sources) and winter (located near protective cover) burrows.

Their burrows comprise of a nest, toilet chamber, spy hole, and the main entrance. Burrows are often located in embankments, on margins of fields, or under sheds, barns, and other buildings.

The average weight of the earth that they excavate for their burrows averages 384 pounds.

Although they are solitary animals, and males live alone and females live with their pups until they’re old enough, burrows can still be occupied by several individuals.

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The pups don’t go far from their home as well when they’re preparing for separation. They’ll dig small burrows in imminent proximity of their family home.

But how come that they don’t drown in their burrows when it rains? Well, woodchucks are capable diggers and build their burrows in such a way that a flood of water won’t trap and drown them.

Are Woodchucks Good For Anything?

Woodchucks are pretty common nowadays in North America, but it wasn’t always like that. Prior to European settlers arriving over the pond to conquer the New World, woodchucks were not as prevalent as they are today.

The settlers started to transform forests into farmland padding the way for a woodchuck baby boom.

Human activities such as clearing forests, building roads, and agriculture have increased food access and abundance allowing woodchucks to thrive. And although that often brings them into direct conflict with farmers or gardeners, woodchucks can be beneficial.

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Their burrows help oxygenize the soil and provide hideouts and refuge for many other animals such as
rabbits, skunks, and foxes. The latter two will eat field pests like mice, insects like grasshoppers, and other bugs that destroy farm crops.

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The Groundhog Day Ceremony

This interesting ceremony has roots in Germany whose settlers, together with the Dutch, brought it to America and Canada where it still persists as a tradition. The weatherman in Germany was a badger and not a groundhog and the tradition was called “Badger Day” (Dachstag).

Arguably, the most famous ceremony to date is the one in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where thousands of people gather every year on February 2 to find out if Phil is going to see his shadow or not.

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While the tradition remains popular in modern times, studies have (of course) found no consistent correlation between a woodchuck seeing its shadow and the consequent arrival time of spring-like weather. Most assessments of Punxsutawney Phil’s efficiency have given accuracy lower than would be expected with random chance, with Stormfax Almanac giving an estimate of around 39%.

However, Groundhog Day serves as a convenient, whimsical, and lucrative event to mark the end of the darkest three months of the year (November, December, and January in the Northern Hemisphere).