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A groundhog's day in the sun


Listen as Berkeley Boone, director of Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail in Athens, describes the groundhog’s characteristics and eating habits.

The legends of the groundhogs

  • Germans have long used hedgehogs to predict weather; groundhogs were the closest U.S. mammal German immigrants could find.
  • English farmers believed February “breeds” weather for the rest of the year.
  • The best-known public observance of Groundhog Day began in Punxsutawney, Pa., in 1886.
Source: McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Consider the groundhog, that chomping, rotund rodent with several aliases, included woodchuck and whistle-pig.

More pest than pet, the critter has found fame with such cousins as Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania and General Beauregard Lee at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn.

Today, across America in ceremonies big and small, groundhogs will leave cozy burrows to unknowingly forecast the weather, then get hoisted up to a picture-taking crowd like a championship trophy.

Should the animal — further popularized in the movie “Groundhog Day” — deserve such attention?

There’s nothing particularly cuddly about the groundhog, which is forbidden by Georgia law to be kept as a pet. And you better watch out if you have an open piece of land or garden — you might attract these hole-digging, vegetarian creatures.

Otherwise, if you see one standing on your lawn, leave it alone, suggests Kent Kammermeyer, a longtime wildlife biologist in Georgia.

“They’re not dangerous. They’re not aggressive whatsoever,” he said. “There’s like a 10-million-to-1 chance they have rabies. Unless he’s doing damage, I wouldn’t do anything.”

Groundhogs are most problematic when they get into pastures.

“It’s pretty easy for a horse or cow to step into a hole by mistake and break a leg,” he said. “And if (groundhogs) get into a soybean field, it’s like they’re in heaven.

“They’ll eat their way around in a semicircle or circle, starting close to their den and moving outward — just make a mess out of that field.”

Groundhogs arrived in Hall County about 30 years ago.

“They sort of worked their way from up north,” Kammermeyer said. “You see them most commonly in and around kudzu patches. They’ll dig a hole and that’ll be their den, underneath the kudzu patch.”

The animals hibernate during the winter, then emerge in early spring as the weather becomes warmer.

“They’ll come out ... to eat that young, fresh grass on the sides of highways and on people’s lawns and pastures,” Kammermeyer said. “I saw one a couple weeks ago when we had that warm-up in January, when the temperatures went into the 60s.”

Melissa Reid, education program manager at Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville, said a change in climate might have brought the groundhog to Hall.

“It could be from adaptations. They adapt with their environment, so they make changes that they need to,” she said.
“The same thing is happening with armadillos; we’re starting to see them here too, and they used to be only in southern Georgia.”

Even if groundhogs were legal as pets, Kammermeyer said that would be ill-advised.

“Just because they’re not aggressive doesn’t mean you won’t one day stick your finger in the place where you’re trying to raise one and they’ll bite it real hard,” he said. “They have the sharpest teeth you ever saw.

“It’s like other forms of wildlife. You just need to let them be wild and not attempt to raise them.”

As for weather forecasting abilities, that draws a big laugh from Kammermeyer.

“That’s one of those long-standing myths that people put together years ago for publicity and having general fun,” he said.

Bear Hollow Wildlife Trail in Athens is holding “Groundhog Day Celebration” from 9 to 11 a.m. today, featuring the 3-year-old resident groundhog “Gus.”

The event will feature education about the animal, a feeding demonstration with Gus, crafts and refreshments.

“Everybody else got to have a groundhog day (event), so we decided we had a groundhog and he was going to be trained in the art of prognosticating weather,” said the trail’s director, Berkeley Boone.

“The mayor tries to make an appearance and we’ve got different activities,” he said. “It’s kind of a fun little time, real laid back.”