Yesterday, I heard male dark-eyed juncos singing territorial songs and saw a flock of American robins, returned to their breeding grounds after spring migration. However, I haven’t seen any sign of groundhogs (also called woodchucks), which are deep hibernators. Groundhogs (Marmota monax) are a kind of marmot, and like other marmots such as the hoary, yellow-bellied, and endangered Vancouver Island marmots, are large (2–4 kg) members of the squirrel family, the Sciuridae. Whereas tree squirrels like our red squirrels remain active throughout the winter, groundhogs, which are grazers, accumulate fat during the summer and autumn and then hibernate during the winter. A reduced body temperature and heart rate allow them to survive on their stored energy until spring arrives and the northern world greens up – much later than usual this year in Nova Scotia.
Last summer, a groundhog visited our yard. During the evenings, I watched it graze on grass and clover in the lawn. One day, while weeding a large flowerbed, I found a massive pile of soil and a burrow entrance in the midst of my excavated bee balm and iris plants. I knew instantly who the culprit was. Groundhogs are diggers par excellance, with low-to-the-ground, chunky bodies and powerful forelimbs. They dig deep winter burrows below the frost line for hibernation, and dig warm-weather burrows to use as escapes from predators and in which to raise young. One year, we had a flood of young groundhogs into the yard in late summer, which meant that a female had raised her litter in a nearby burrow. Vilis livetrapped the youngsters and released them far from our yard.
In North America, we have a rather whimsical day known as Groundhog Day, on February 2 of each year. As the folklore goes, if a groundhog looks out of its burrow on Groundhog Day and sees cloudy skies, we’ll have an early spring. If the day is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow, we’re in for six more weeks of winter. Here in Nova Scotia, Groundhog Day 2015 was a decidedly sunny day. When Shubenacadie Sam – the province’s resident groundhog meteorologist at Shubenacadie Wildlfe Park – ‘looked out of his burrow,’ the prediction was clearly for six more weeks of winter.
And that prediction was right – in a big way. More than eight weeks after Groundhog Day, Nova Scotia is still blanketed with snow, nearly all of which had arrived since late January. The spring equinox is two weeks past, and although day length is increasing at a joy-inspiring rate, the snowpack in our yard and meadows remains three to four feet deep. I don’t normally wear snowshoes to fill our bird feeder or prune fruit trees, but I have this winter/spring. Never before, in the twenty-four years I’ve lived at Ravenhill, have I seen so much snow. The blizzards and winter storms have arrived with astounding frequency. We received three major storms in one week in late March – great incentive to hunker down and tackle my writing projects. The first book of my New Zealand family adventure trilogy Cry of the Kiwi will be launched to the world within a week. Exciting!
This morning, the wind is up and the temperature has climbed above freezing, so some of that snow will melt. When I go for a walk, I’ll look for more migratory songbirds and keep my eyes peeled for those groundhogs.
Reference: Adrian Forsyth. (1985). Mammals of the Canadian Wild. Camden East, ON: Camden House Publishing Ltd.