Digging up the straight facts on Michigan’s groundhogs
By BRIAN ROELL
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
MARQUETTE—Woodchucks – also known as groundhogs and a few less-common names such as chuck, whistler or whistle pig – are found throughout Michigan. They are the state’s third-largest rodent, after beavers and porcupines.
Woodchucks belong to the squirrel family, which also includes tree squirrels and chipmunks, and are Michigan’s largest member of this family. However, these ground-dwelling squirrels are built for digging, with flattened bodies and short, powerful legs. Males are slightly larger than females, but otherwise both sexes look very similar, with coarse, reddish-brown fur and lighter guard hairs, which have yellowish-gray tips. Adult’s measure roughly 20 to 25 inches, including a tail that is about 5 inches long.
To survive Michigan’s long winters, woodchucks hibernate through the winter months. During hibernation, breathing and body temperatures are greatly reduced, while woodchucks’ heart rate can slow to as few as 15 beats per minute. Generally, woodchucks weigh somewhere between 5 and 12 pounds. This large variation in weight allows them to survive hibernation.
Unlike chipmunks, which rely on stored food, woodchucks must survive the winter months on stored body fat, so their fall weight at entry into their den is considerably heavier than when they emerge in the spring.
It is amazing how this unassuming ground-dwelling squirrel has become the source of two of the most widely speculated-about questions in America, especially during February.
The first, and most famous, question is, how much longer will winter last? On Feb. 2 (Groundhog Day), legend has it that if a woodchuck emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, we will have six more weeks of winter. If it does not see its shadow, then spring will arrive soon.