One morning about a week ago, this groundhog spent a few hours hanging around close to the banding lab at Innis Point. We’d seen him, or we presume it was the same individual, once or twice a little farther out though still in the same general area, but this was the first time we’d noticed it so close to the buildings. One of my interns spotted him first, and pointed him out, and after watching him a few moments I went to get my camera. I sidled slooowly up toward him, and while he seemed alert and watchful, he didn’t seem overly nervous. He retreated to his burrow only once, and popped his head out again nearly immediately. When I paused and stood still, waiting for him, he eventually decided perhaps I was no threat after all, and came out to rest at the edge of his hole again. Through slow, non-threatening movements I was able to get within seven or eight feet of him. He remained there after I turned and slowly walked away again. I love encounters like that with wildlife.
That was the only time we’ve seen the groundhog at this burrow entrance, but that’s not to say he’s not still around in the area. A groundhog’s burrow may be fairly extensive, with up to five entrances from different directions, and 14 m (46 ft) of tunnels connecting to it. The entrance near our buildings may not be a favoured one. Burrows serve the dual purpose of sleeping and family-raising. They may use the burrow for hibernation, as well, or build a new one used expressly for that purpose; in either case, the burrow used for hibernation is dug deep enough to be below the frost line, where the soil remains above freezing through even the coldest months. Some may be as much as 1.5 m (5 ft) below the surface.
For the most part, except for the purposes of mating groundhogs are solitary animals. While the male keeps the female company during her month-long gestation period, he leaves before the young are born and she raises the pups by herself. The young are born in April or early May, which was about the time we started noticing this one around. I’m not sure if it’s a male or a female, as I admit I haven’t been able to get a good look at its back end.
The most famous groundhogs, of course, are those used in predicting the return of spring: Punxsutawney Phil and Ontario’s own Wiarton Willie. The original Wiarton Willie was an albino groundhog who lived in the town till the ripe old age of 22; he died during hibernation one winter. His successors have also been albinos. The first died at just six years, and while his death was attributed to an infection, six years is probably a more typical lifespan for a groundhog. Wild animals live on average about two to three years, with lucky or wily animals perhaps reaching six or more years before slowing reflexes, aging immune system, or other health problems finally catch up with them.
He was pretty comfortable with us there – so much so, that while I stood watching he stretched out one paw, flexing the little fingers, and yawned. I’m not sure whether this groundhog’s relaxed attitude will prove a good thing (conserve energy/metabolism) or bad (slow to retreat may result in being caught). In the weeks I’ve been there, though, we’ve yet to see a predator that would be a threat to a groundhog, so at the very least he seems to have chosen a good place to call home.