Groundhogs are ‘eating machines’

Staff Writer
Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, are native to Ohio. While they are famous for seeing — or not seeing — their shadows, their main talent appears to be eating, and in large quantities.
“Pretty much they are eating machines,” said John Windau, wildlife communications specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife District 2.
The animals are vegetarians and eat grasses, alfalfa, clover, beans, corn and “pretty much any vegetation that’s in front of them,” Windau said. They spend all summer and fall eating heavily and putting on weight.
“Groundhogs must put on a thick layer of fat to survive their hibernation through the winter months,” states an Ohio Division of Wildlife website.
Then in October or November, the groundhogs go into a burrow. Windau said groundhogs are a “true hibernator,” meaning they go into a state where their heart rate decreases and their body temperature goes down. He said this differs from some other animals that go into a kind of torpor and reduce activity in the winter but are not true hibernators.
Groundhogs emerge from their dens in February or March, with the adult males coming out first. Windau said he can’t speak to where the tradition of Groundhog Day comes from but it is true that this is the time period when the groundhogs start to emerge. However, he said it’s unlikely that they’d come out of their dens as early as Feb. 2 this year, given the weather recently.
Groundhogs prefer open grasslands and pastures. Before Ohio was heavily settled, they could be found in wooded areas, but as areas were cleared it actually improved their habitat, Windau said.
Adult groundhogs in Ohio generally weigh nine to 10 pounds.
The breeding period is from March to May, peaking in April. Baby groundhogs are called kits or cubs. Females generally have one litter a year, with an average of four to five per litter. The young stay with the mother for about a month and then leave and start their own period of eating lots of vegetation.
Windau said groundhogs eat all types of plants and will look for nutritious plant matter in particular. This includes raiding people’s gardens and eating the vegetables. They can be a concern for farmers as well as gardeners, he said. They can cause damage by, for example, burrowing under barns.
Windau said there are opportunities for wildlife lovers to look for groundhogs.
“You can see them a lot of times along field edges,” he said.
It’s also legal to hunt groundhogs in Ohio. A hunting license is required, Windau said.
Groundhogs are eligible and their meat can be used as a substitute for any recipe that calls for squirrel meat.
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