We have all heard or said the tongue twister, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
Well, a woodchuck, also known as a groundhog, whistlepig, grassrat, landbeaver, rockchuck or earthpig, can’t chuck wood, but it does take center stage on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2.
According to “The Old Farmer’s 2018 Almanac,” “Each year on February 2, Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil and Canada’s Wiarton Willie (and a host of other groundhogs) predict spring’s arrival. According to lore, if a groundhog sees his shadow when yanked from hibernation, 6 more weeks of winter will follow. Festivities here stem from Old World celebrations, which involved a hedgehog (or badger or bear or wolf, among other critters) in Europe but evolved to be a Pennsylvania groundhog in 1887. Such claims are without scientific basis, so don’t put all your faith in the mammals.
“Astronomically, the date marks the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. In England, this was called Candlemas Day. Lighted candles honored the purification of the Virgin Mary, but traditional verse focused on the weather: ‘If Candlemas be fair and bright, Come, winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, Go winter and come not again.’
“In Ireland and Scotland, February 2 was called Imbolc (im-MOLK, for lambs’ milk), noting the start of lambing season; in Ireland, it was also Brigantia, named for the Celtic female deity of light and signaling longer days.”
Wisconsin is home to Sun Prairie’s Jimmy the Groundhog. According to the city’s website, for more than 50 years “Sun Prairie members and supporters” have been proclaiming Sun Prairie to be “The Groundhog Capital of the World.”
The Groundhog Day tradition in Sun Prairie dates back to 1948, when Wisconsin celebrated its centennial year. According to Sun Prairie’s website, “As part of the Wisconsin Centennial celebration, many communities sought symbols as part of its community promotional efforts. Sun Prairie Village Postmaster Margaret McGonigle agreed to adopt the groundhog as a symbol for Sun Prairie. The first groundhog postcard was produced in 1948.”
This year, Downtown Sun Prairie will celebrate the 70th annual Sun Prairie Groundhog Prognostication ceremony Friday, Feb. 2, at Cannery Square. The ceremony begins at 6:50 a.m., with the prognostication taking place at sunrise (7:11 a.m.).
Dave Matthes, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, said woodchucks weigh between five and 11 pounds. “They are pretty good size; they have some heft to them.”
Although the word “wood” is in their name, woodchucks do not live in the woods. Matthes said they burrow to make dens in open farmland, open meadows, the border between the woods and a field, and in suburban areas in places such as under a patio.
Matthes said the animals, which are members of the rodent family, can be destructive, excavating under foundations, patios and decks. If water seeps into an excavated area the soil could erode or wash away, “bringing the concrete with it,” Matthes said.
Matthes said it can often be difficult to co-exist with woodchucks, especially if one has burrowed under a building’s foundation.
“If you can’t raise your level of tolerance, you can shoot, live trap or kill trap them without a permit,” Matthes said. “Landowners, if they choose to shoot one, they have to see if it’s legal to discharge a firearm or bow and arrow.”
He said gardeners can also have a hard time with woodchucks because they can feed on vegetation, young plants and produce in the garden. “The same rules apply,” Matthes said.
A fence could be built, Matthes said, “but it has to be a good fence.”
“They are like bulldozers and could push through a mesh fence and can deform it or get under the fence,” he said. “It has to be a pretty stout fence.”
Matthes said people either like woodchucks or hate them.
“There’s a dichotomy there…,” he said. “I’ve had no issued (with them) myself.”