All About Groundhogs

Pennsylvania’s state animal is the whitetail, but you’d never know it judging by the fervor that envelopes the state every year on February 2, Groundhog Day, when Punxsutawney Phil is pulled from his burrow to let us know whether or not to expect six more weeks of winter. The Germans who settled in Western PA started the tradition in 1886. Back in Germany, it had been a hedgehog pulled out of its burrow to predict the weather; finding none in PA, they substituted the groundhog.

By the way, 364 days a year Phil, and his “wife” Phyllis, live in a climate-controlled burrow — designed so that visitors can watch them in their burrow — at the Punxsutawney Library. For Groundhog Day he is placed in an area, which is heated, under a simulated tree stump where he waits for the grand unveiling and prediction. The wise, enlightened, compassionate folks (ha-ha) at PETA believe Phil to be somehow “enslaved” and want him replaced with a robot. They believe that Phil and Phyllis find it annoying that people can watch them.

Groundhogs have powerful jaws and teeth, which allow them to chew through roots as they dig their burrows.

I believe that Phil and Phyllis have hit the groundhog lotto.

Anyway, despite that annual period of high interest in the animal, most people know little about them. They don’t elicit the same obsession as say, the whitetail. You won’t find coffee-table books with a title, say, “Moon Phases and Their Effect on Groundhog Hunting.” There are no Boone & Crockett standards for groundhogs, a.k.a. woodchucks, whistle pigs and even, land beavers.

But most groundhog hunters are a fount of information about groundhogs, and use that information to hunt them. For example, hunters know that a groundhog burrow is usually about 20- to 25 feet long, about 5 feet deep, with a main chamber and several exits. Some have been documented at 40 feet long. When a hunter considers an area, he tries to set up so that he can monitor several holes.

Groundhogs have physical attributes uniquely matched to their needs. They have four toes on the front feet, five toes on the back feet, for more powerful digging. Their mouths are dominated by powerful teeth that can chop through roots if needed as they dig the burrows.

So, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Well, if you figured the volume of dirt moved for an average woodchuck burrow, in other words, if you filled that 25-foot long burrow with wood, you’d need 700 pounds of wood!

Groundhogs go into “profound hibernation.” Their body temperature drops from its usual 99- to 39-40 degrees Fahrenheit. Their heartbeat drops from 80 beats a minute to 5; their breathing, from 12 to 4 breaths a minute. They hibernate soon after the first frost and by the time they begin to emerge, in February or March, they’ve lost half of their body weight, which for a full-size adult heading into hibernation may be as much as 14 pounds.

The groundhog rut takes place in late March to mid-April, and gestation is from 28- to 32 days. The male groundhog leaves the den on the same day the young, usually three to five, called kits, are born. When the young are weaned, at about 6 weeks old the female groundhog carries each one a distance from their home den, helps them make a “starter” hole, and then leaves. They don’t try to follow her.

Jimmy Turin hunting groundhogs
Hunting groundhogs was a favorite pastime of Jimmy Turin, Philadelphia, who passed away earlier this year in 2013.

Groundhog On The Menu

I remember a day when one of my brother’s best friends, a guy named Ernie Haynes, who’d moved to Pennsylvania from Mississippi, served us a no-name stew. Guess what it is, he’d said, and I’d guessed, rabbit?

It was groundhog, he said. It was delicious!

If you’re going to prepare one for the table, here are the necessary steps:

1. Remove scent glands, which are located in the small of the back and around the top of the front legs.

2. Cut into pieces and rinse.

3. Put in a pot or bowl and add enough water to cover. Add one-half cup of vinegar and 1-1/2 tablespoons of salt. Cover and let soak for 8- to 12 hours.

4. Drain and boil in two quarts of water for 20 minutes.

5. Remove the pieces, save the water. Slice the meat into pieces and return to the water, add chopped vegetables of your choice. Simmer for 45 minutes and thicken if needed.

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