February 03, 2012 12:00AM
On Thursday, officials in Punxsutawney, Pa., will pull a groundhog named Phil from his heated burrow and proclaim either six more weeks of winter or an early spring. But biologist Steve Ford doesn’t expect our local groundhogs to even notice whether it is sunny or cloudy that day.
“It’s really a little early for woodchucks (the other name for groundhogs) to come out of hibernation,” Ford said, “although with our unusually warm winter I suppose I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that a few might be stirring.”
Ford, a professor of zoology in the Pittsburg State University Biology Department, said the woodchuck’s range extends from the eastern counties of Kansas, throughout Missouri and across the northeastern part of the U.S.
“I’m originally from Indiana,” Ford said, “and they are much more common in that area. Around here, one of the places I’ve seen them frequently is along Murphy Blvd in Landreth Park in Joplin.”
Ford said groundhogs, or woodchucks, are herbivores and burrowers, so they can do quite a bit of damage to gardens. That may be one reason why an Internet search on the animal turns up many websites devoted to information about how to get rid of them. Something Ford says is not that easy to do.
Groundhogs are the largest members of the squirrel family and frequently inhabit areas where the woods meet open spaces such as fields and roads. They spend their summers gorging themselves and building up fat stores in preparation for hibernation after the first frost. During hibernation, the animal’s heart rate slows and its temperature drops.
Ford doubts groundhogs are good weather predictors, but nevertheless, he said, they are interesting creatures and important residents of the natural world around us.