Wildlife

Would you trust a groundhog?

Celebrating Groundhog Day with wildlife expert Michael Runtz

  • Feb 01, 2023
  • 701 words
  • 3 minutes
Sometimes referred to as woodchucks or whistle pigs, groundhogs are one of 14 species of marmots, a subgroup of the squirrel family. (Photo: Michael Runtz)
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Early spring or more winter? Leave it up to the groundhogs.  

Each year on Feb. 2, thousands of North Americans check in to see whether famous groundhogs like Wiarton Willie will see their shadow. According to folklore, if groundhogs see their shadow, they will return to their burrow, indicating six more weeks of winter. If no shadow appears, then spring is on the way!

In Canada, Wiarton Willie is the groundhog to follow, while in the U.S., Punxsutawney Phil makes the prediction. Either way, Groundhog Day has become a popular North American tradition, providing the opportunity to talk about our favourite wintertime topic — the weather. 

Michael Runtz is a lifelong naturalist and lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa. (Photo: Britta Gerwin)
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Wildlife expert Michael Runtz, who has been observing groundhogs for pretty much his entire life, calls them a fantastic species. “They have lots of interesting behaviours and adaptations. For one, they are the world’s largest hibernating animal.” 

Though many assume bears are our heftiest hibernators, they actually don’t truly hibernate. To be a true hibernator, an animal has to have a body core temperature that drops to only a few degrees above freezing and a heart rate of fewer than eight beats per minute. “On the groundhog, it’s about five beats per minute. That’s almost a deathlike state to survive the long winters that they experience up here.”

One of Canada’s most highly respected naturalists, nature photographers and natural history authors, Runtz lives and breathes nature. A lifelong naturalist, he began birdwatching at the age of five. He has authored more than a dozen books on topics ranging from beavers and wolves to wildflowers and the seasons of Algonquin Park. He currently works as a lecturer at Carleton University in Ottawa, teaching natural history.

Groundhog Day dates back to early Christianity with the tradition of Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, which was celebrated on Feb. 2. “This evolved into the belief that if it was sunny on Candlemas day, there’d be another couple months of winter, going into May,” says Runtz. 

This belief was then expanded by the Germans, who introduced an animal, the hedgehog, to appear on Candlemas day. “If the hedgehog appeared and saw its shadow, which of course, reflects the fact that it would be sunny, that would mean winter would go into May.” Runtz explains that when Germans came to settle North America, they brought the belief about Candlemas day and the hedgehog with them. “But of course, we don’t have hedgehogs here, so the groundhog was the perfect animal to replace it.” 

As a lowland mammal, groundhogs can be found across Canada and much of the Eastern United States. (Photo: Michael Runtz)
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Since then, Groundhog Day has become a yearly celebration. “People love holidays, for one thing, and things to celebrate,” says Runtz. 

Sometimes referred to as woodchucks or whistle pigs, groundhogs are one of 14 species of marmots, a subgroup of the squirrel family. They are a lowland mammal of North America and can be found across Canada and much of the Eastern United States. As underground architects, groundhogs built extensive burrows up to 20 metres long. Some even have multiple burrows with different entrances and rooms. 

“Every species is important,” says Runtz. “I don’t think they are any more important than other species.” Unlike other animals, groundhogs have done better since colonization, he explains. They love open spaces, and more farmland development has led the species to thrive. 

Groundhogs, says Runtz, have fascinating courtship rituals. When males seek females, they will often stand up and open up their mouths so the female can smell the inside of their mouths. To the casual human observer, it looks like the groundhogs are giving each other a “kiss,” but this wasn’t really the case. “It’s like a groundhog smelling the glandular excretions of another groundhog to analyze its status,” says Runtz. So much for romance. He notes that groundhogs are usually solitary, seeking out one another only when it’s time to mate.

Groundhogs like Wiarton Willie and Punxsutawney Phil don’t have a great track record when it comes to predicting the length of winter. “They are only in the 30 per cent range of prediction,” says Runtz. “Groundhogs are not quite as good as humans with all the machinery and satellite imagery, and so on. So no, I would not trust a groundhog.” 

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