Punxsutawney has Phil, however these rodents are true hibernators

Punxsutawney has Phil, however these rodents are true hibernators

WWho does Bill Murray think he is? His 1993 rom-com radically changed popular understanding of Southwest Pennsylvania’s best-known mythological tale.

Before the blockbuster film Groundhog Day, February 2nd had nothing to do with a time warp that imprisons its temporal prisoners until they do what eternity intends. Since 1887, this day has been all about predicting the first day of spring.

But even Punxsutawney Phil is just a meteorologically inclined caricature misrepresenting the unseen world of a biological marvel: the whistling pig.

Also known for that tongue twister about throwing wood, French Canadians refer to Marmota monax as the “siffleux” (whistle), the sound it makes when it senses danger.

A marmot lets out a whistling cry. (youtube)

The groundhog is one of nature’s habitat engineers—an adaptable rodent that impacts land-based ecosystems in the eastern United States, Canada, and Alaska. Before European colonists felled trees to clear farmland, marmots were creatures of forest edges, where they could quickly climb trees to escape predators. They can still climb, but are more commonly seen alone in low-cut fields, casually chewing ground-level foliage.

“They have a thumb-like appendage that helps them climb,” said Henry Kacprzyk, a biologist at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium in Highland Park. “But they really have no way of predicting the end of winter.”

Punxsutawney Phil showing his paws on Groundhog Day 2011. A piece of the thumb-like process can be seen on the paw on the right. (John Heller/Post Gazette)

With the exception of “the one they grab out of its burrow and pull up in February,” he said, marmots are true hibernators. They would rather sleep through the winter than forecast.

“Down in their burrows, their body temperature drops to 40-45 degrees and they survive on the fat their bodies store,” he said. “When the ground around them warms up during the longer spring days, the first thing they do, even before they eat, is get out there and find a mate.”

family dynamics

A litter of groundhogs emerge from the bottom of a propane tank at a farm in Mason County, Kentucky, in May 2005. (AP Photo/The Ledger Independent, Terry Prather)

uUnlike prairie dogs and other members of the marmot family, which congregate in close-knit, socially complicated colonies, groundhogs live solitary for most of their lives.

She-Chucks mate in their second year. You are not monogamous. During the 31-32 day gestation period, pairs live in the females’ den. She throws him out just before dropping her litter in April or May.

Litters average three to five pups, but can include up to nine siblings — all blind, hairless, and weighing around 1.5 ounces. Fully haired and seeing, they follow their mum into the big wide world for the first time in August.

In September, she realizes an annoying underground launch bug and chases her cubs out of the burrow. They start their own lives, digging out burrows that are seldom closer than about 20 meters – often further – from mom’s hole. As juveniles and adults, marmots rarely, if ever, interact with their parents.

hide at home


Marmot burrows can be elaborate and long, with emergency exits and separate chambers. (Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

TThe familiar pile of dirt at the entrance to the burrow is just the front door. Tunnels can be expansive – up to 45 feet long and up to 5 feet deep. Hallways fork with passageways leading to multiple hidden escape exits and rooms specifically designed for sleeping, hibernation, food storage, and excrement disposal.

Marmots prefer to live in open meadows and forest edges where predators can be easily seen from a distance. In Pennsylvania, immature chucks often fall prey to foxes, coyotes, and any animal that eats meat, including eagles, hawks, and other predators.

A bald eagle feeds on a marmot carcass in August 2011. This photo was taken by a motion-sensitive field camera at a Lawrence County warehouse owned by Scott’s Dave Dombrosky.

Adult females average almost 8 pounds; Adult males generally weigh more. That’s a heavy burden for most regional predators, who are naturally suspicious of defending an adult marmot. After the whistle, marmots will crouch and hide in their burrows or lash back wildly with beaver-like incisors. The most consistently successful groundhog predator is the car.

Marmots can be dangerous in other ways.

Cattle break their legs after accidentally stepping into a marmot hole. Agricultural machinery breaks when they hit invisible hills and cave entrances, and all the groundhog’s digging and scratching destroys the soil and causes erosion of financially valuable fields.

Many farmers agree that licensed hunters reduce marmot populations. Liberal regulations provide for an open season except two weeks before Christmas when deer season is closed.


A groundhog picnic in Schenley Park in 2014. (John Heller/Post-Gazette)

Want to see one? Go to the Pittsburgh Zoo. But Kacprzyk says they are not in an exhibition.

“They show up like a lot of places with grassy areas,” he said. “They’re always in the Kid’s Kingdom and across the street from that [Highland Park] Reservoir.”

A groundhog peers through a door in front of Rivers Casino on the North Shore in 2021. (Post Gazette)

If Punxutawney Phil’s real life relatives are eating your vegetable garden, they’re relatively easy to catch in a live trap placed about 10 feet from a den entrance and baited with a sliced ​​turnip, tomato, or your favorite apple.

Unlike most wild animals, solitary marmots disperse naturally and typically avoid territoriality, overpopulation, and inbreeding. Unless the move is spreading disease, it’s generally safe to release your unwelcome garden robber into a sparse forest or field.

John Hayes: jhayes@gmail.com