Since Groundhog Day is this week, I decided this varmint deserved mention. Farmers and gardeners experience their destructive behavior. Most consider them a cute little rodent.
These squirrel relatives also called woodchucks or whistle pigs have a portly body, and short muscular legs. Front feet have curved claws for digging, and they are good at it. They also have a short dark furry tail. Like squirrels, they can even climb trees. Both sexes have similar builds and colors, though males are usually larger. Chucks average less than 10 pounds each and are social creatures. Their shrill call which signals danger earned them the nickname whistle pig. Groundhogs also make this sound when fighting other groundhogs for territory.
We are near the southernmost range of these marmots, which are adapted to much cooler climates. These animals undergo a true hibernation, meaning they enter into a deep sleep and can be touched while hibernating and not know it. They also construct a separate den just for winter. During dormancy their heart rate drops from 80 beats per minute to four or five, and body temperature drops from about 90 degrees Fahrenheit to about 38.
Hibernation varies greatly among locations. In northern Maine, for example, they might stay in their burrows for nearly six months. The most famous groundhog in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania hibernates for about a hundred days, and around here they barely sleep more than two months.
In spring they mate and females give birth to an average of four young after a 28-32 day pregnancy. At birth, baby groundhogs are naked, blind and less than four inches long. They seldom venture outside until they are between six or seven weeks old. After that young whistle pigs grow quickly and reach adult size in a few months.
When they are awake they can be one of the most annoying critters around. Contrary to insurance commercials they don’t chuck wood, but they have sharp teeth that can chew it up quite a bit. With the exception of a meal or two here and there, we have benefitted from whistle pigs far less than they have benefitted from us. Clearing woodlands for agriculture opened up ideal habitat for them and across North America their numbers exploded.
Groundhogs are a minor problem here compared to most areas. Our high local water table frequently floods them out. Still, they dig holes in fields, causing damage to farm equipment and injury to livestock. They also eat our crops and can devour considerable amounts of them. Underground water and electrical lines are not immune to damage either. Whistle pigs do make acceptable table fare, particularly young ones not laden with fat.
Skin a youthful specimen, cut it into pieces and fillet each piece. Brown them in a skillet with your favorite meat seasonings. I like lots of garlic. Cover meat with water and let mixture simmer under low heat for at least a half hour. When the meat is tender, thicken the gravy with flour or starch. Serve over rice or potatoes, and enjoy.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.