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Growing Green: Punxsutawney Phil for virtual Groundhog Day

In less than one month, Groundhog Day will be celebrated Feb. 2.

Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog in Punxsutawney, Jefferson County, is said to forecast weather by looking for his shadow from his perch on Gobbler’s Knob.

If it’s sunny and he sees his shadow, we’re in for six more weeks of winter. A cloudy Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, is supposed to mean an early spring.

Groundhog Day annually attracts thousands, swelling the population of approximately 6,000 in Punxsutawney for a festival, an event seen in the movie, “Groundhog Day” (1993), starring Bill Murray.

On the Groundhog Club’s website, president Jeffrey Lundy, referring to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, states that risks are “too great” to hold the festival in 2021. The event will be presented on-line.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Lottery’s mascot Gus is referred to in TV commercials as “the second most famous groundhog in Pennsylvania,” in deference to Phil.

The woodchuck (Marmota monax), also known as the groundhog or whistle pig or to Pennsylvania-Germans, grundsow, is one of Pennsylvania’s most widely-distributed mammals.

The groundhog’s compact, chunky body is supported by short, strong legs. Its forefeet have long, curved claws that are well-adapted for digging burrows. Its short tail is well-covered with dark brown fur. Groundhogs usually are a grizzled brownish-gray.

Both sexes are similar in appearance, with the males being slightly larger. As with other rodents, groundhogs have white or yellowish-white, chisel-like incisor teeth. Their eyes, ears, and nose are located toward the top of the head, which allows them to remain concealed in their burrows while they check for danger over the rim or edge.

A groundhog burrow serves as home for mating, raising young, hibernating, and escaping danger. Groundhog burrows can be identified by the large mound of excavated earth at the main entrance. On this mound, the groundhog frequently sits to look for danger.

From the entranceway, which is 10 to 12 inches in diameter, the burrow goes down at a rather steep angle and then levels off into a narrower tunnel. A single nest chamber, used for sleeping and raising young, is formed at the end of the burrow.

In addition to the main entranceway, there are commonly one to three secondary entrances. These secondary entrances are dug from below and do not have mounds of earth beside them. They are often well-hidden and sometimes difficult to locate.

Groundhogs usually range only 50 to 150 feet from their den and can retreat quickly into the burrow when threatened.

Groundhogs primarily feed in the early morning and evening hours. They are strict herbivores and feed on a variety of vegetables, grasses and legumes.

Groundhogs are among the few mammals that enter into true hibernation which generally begins near the end of October or early November and continues until late February and March. Males usually come out of hibernation before females, and juvenile males may travel long distances in search of a mate.

They breed in March and April. A single litter of usually four is produced each season after a gestation period of about 32 days. They are weaned by late June or early July, and soon after, strike out on their own.

Groundhogs have a lifespan of about three to four years. Their primary predators include hawks, owls, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, weasels, dogs, and humans.

On occasion, the groundhog’s feeding and burrowing habits conflict with human interests. Damage often occurs on farms, in home gardens, orchards, nurseries, and around buildings.

Damage to crops such as alfalfa, soybeans, beans, squash, tomatoes, and peas can be costly and extensive. Homeowners may lose their entire tomato patch. Fruit trees and ornamental shrubs may be damaged by groundhogs because they gnaw on woody vegetation.

Mounds of earth from the excavated burrow systems and holes formed at burrow entrances present a hazard to farm equipment, lawn equipment, horses and riders.

The most permanent groundhog control method is fencing. However, the practicality of fencing depends on the size of the area to be fenced. Fences should be at least three-feet-high and made of heavy poultry wire or two-inch woven-mesh wire.

To prevent groundhogs from burrowing under the fence, bury the lower edge 12 inches in the ground with the lower inches bent at an L-shaped angle leading outward. Fences should extend three to four feet above the ground. Bending the top 15 inches of wire fence outward at a 45 degree angle will also prevent groundhogs from climbing over the fence.

Fencing is most beneficial when used to protect home gardens and has the added advantage of keeping rabbits, dogs, cats, and other animals out of the garden area.

There are many forms of groundhog damage control available such as frightening them, trapping, repellents, toxicants and fumigants. For homeowners, exclusion is the most effective way to alleviate vegetation damage.

As with all control techniques, make sure groundhogs are responsible for the damage before taking action.

“Growing Green” is contributed by Lehigh County Extension Office Staff and Master Gardeners. Information: Lehigh County Extension Office, 610-391-9840; Northampton County Extension Office, 610-813-6613.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Punxsutawney Phil and his brethren wonder: Bet with Gus on an early spring or on six more weeks of winter?