This week I was at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, in Pennsylvania. The view was pretty cool, with our rooms and the restaurants looking over some nice hills. Our view also gave us a glance at the wildlife of the resort, which seems to consist only of groundhogs. We saw four in one patch of grass, and the abundance of these large, waddling rodents inspired me to write a blog post.
Groundhogs live in a large swath of North America, from Oklahoma and Louisiana in the south, to Alaska in the north, and the Atlantic coast in the east. Because they cover such a large area, groundhogs live in variety of different habitats. They favour low elevation forests, fields, pastures and hedgerows. Since they prefer open areas, groundhogs have benefitted from human activity, such as the clearing of forests and the cultivation of land.
On average, groundhogs grow to be 40-65 cm in length, with weights of 2-4 kg. They can get significantly bigger than this, reaching 14 kg, if there is plenty of food and few predators. They are stocky, and have powerful claws and limbs for digging. Groundhogs have two coats of fur, an undercoat and a guard hair coat. They are usually grey or brown in colour.
Groundhogs spend most of their time underground, in self-constructed burrows, which have numerous chambers and multiple exits. A burrow can have up to fourteen meters of tunnels, to depths of 1.5 m. Groundhogs come to the surface to feed, eating mostly plant matter such as clover, alfalfa, dandelion and coltsfoot. They will also eat small invertebrates, but prefer to munch on plants. Groundhogs are particularly vulnerable while feeding, and will often stand on their hind legs to look for predators. If a predator is spotted, the groundhog will emit a high-pitched whistle, which warns other groundhogs of the danger.
Though they may feed in the same location as other groundhogs, they are not a particularly social species. They are territorial, and will hiss, growl, and shriek at conspecifics that get too close. When threatened by predators, groundhogs will run for their burrows, but have also been known to swim or climb trees. If pressed, they will stand and fight, using their claws and big front teeth to defend themselves.
Reproduction in groundhogs occurs in the early spring, after the animals emerge from hibernation. Male and female pairs will retreat to a burrow, where they will spend some time together getting acquainted. As the female gets ready to give birth, the male will leave the den so he doesn’t have to take responsibility for his children. Litter size is usually two to six, with the young being weaned at 44 days of age.
Because they eat agricultural crops and burrow into the ground, groundhogs are considered to be pests by many. Despite hunting by people for sport, fur and meat, groundhogs are not at all threatened, and are in fact very common. I haven’t been bothered by groundhogs, and they are kind of cute, so I’m pretty happy there are so many of them around, though I’m sure other people feel differently.