Do Groundhogs Hibernate? Woodchuck Hibernation Habits and Facts


Groundhogs …also known as woodchucks are a common animal that many of us find in our backyards creating a mess in the property. But it has always been a mystery as to where they get hidden away during winter?

So that brings it to the question does a groundhog hibernate? To give you more details on why and how groundhogs hibernate, the below article might be helpful – starting with the quick answer to help you along… 

Does A Groundhog Hibernate? Groundhogs do hibernate. Groundhogs hibernate from October to February. The hibernation period depends on the location temperature. Groundhogs hibernate because of the difficulties in finding fresh leafy resources to keep them in good weight, energy and heart rate to survive throughout the winter.

But there are a number of additional interesting facts when talking about groundhog hibernation, so let’s take a look in a bit more detail.

Why groundhogs hibernate

There are different reasons why animals hibernate. Usually one of the main reasons why animals hibernate depends on an animal’s diet.

When talking about what groundhogs do in winter, groundhogs are largely herbivores where their diet depends mainly on plants. However, they also eat insects and arthropods from time to time. So when winter falls a groundhog will face difficulties in finding plants to help them survive winter.

To help make more sense of this, when animals hibernate, generally speaking, both the breathing and heart rate of animals reduces.

Also, generally speaking, an animal’s overall bodyweight reduces too. So this means to keep the bodyweight at a stable level which can tolerate the cold – or basically, to keep animals alive through winter, some animals hibernate.

This means that animals should be able to take up as many nutrients as they can to keep up the weight and heart rate at a stable level.

When specifically talking about groundhog – which in the USA is classed as a rodent, they have to keep chewing to keep their teeth at a manageable length. So for the groundhog to survive the winter, there will likely not be enough dense food to enable them to keep chewing.

A lack of sustainable food before hibernation could make the groundhog energy deficient and thereby lead potentially to death by starvation – during hibernation.

But, unlike other animals, a groundhog hibernation has many other interesting facts.

How groundhogs prepare for winter

To make it through the hibernation period, groundhogs start to eat enough food in late summer, to put on weight. And this continues during fall. The groundhogs aim to save up enough food, especially fat sources like apples, walnuts, acorns, and other protein-rich high-calorie food. 

Alfalfa is one of the staple food of groundhog. This leaf is abundant during late summer and provides a high nutrient and dense food for groundhogs.

In fact, it is known that groundhogs with availability for alfalfa can grow to three times as large as groundhogs without leafy resources.

Groundhogs that wake up early in the spring have more time to build up fat for the next winter. This is because as groundhogs diet comprise mostly of plants, it becomes hard for them to find such leafy resources towards winter.

This is why animals that have a wide variety of food choices can make it through the longest winters, without hibernating.

groundhogs eat lots before winter
groundhogs eat lots before winter sets in

How groundhogs spend their winter

During hibernation, groundhogs live in burrows that they dig. Usually, these burrows will have piles of dirt near the opening.

Throughout winter they remain inactive while their heart rates slow down along with a drop in body temperature. The body temperature drops approximately 39-40 degrees Fahrenheit. The heart beats slows down to around 5 times per minute. They will breathe only around twice per minute.

Groundhogs will stay in hibernation for several months from late October to early February.

But this depends on the geographic locations. Groundhogs will hibernate less in higher temperature locations and climates, and hibernate more at lower temperature climates.

For example, Maine groundhogs hibernate for 175 days, whereas those in South Carolina may hibernate for only about 65 days. 

Emerging from hibernation

When reaching the end of the hibernation period, it’s the male groundhogs that emerge from their burrows first. 

Although males emerge first, they usually seek out and join the females in their hibernating burrows. This is a way of preparing for the mating season, where males begin to see the possible mating options.

Mating starts in the early spring (emergence). The males join the females towards the end of hibernation, to create a bond and also to build up their territories for the new season.

Some groundhogs may not emerge

Although it may be unpleasant to hear, some groundhogs don’t actually wake up from their hibernation. This is not because of starvation, but this condition is related to their low body temperature or the overall nutritional health of the animal.

This also directly links to any disease groundhogs may have while in hibernation. This is because when an animal is already debilitated by illness, any further drop in the body temperature (as can happen in winter) may not be enough to provide the necessary energy for life support.

As such, because of this, some groundhogs, unfortunately, die during their hibernation period.

However, most of the deaths due to illness during hibernation is experienced mainly by young groundhogs – and groundhogs that wake up late in the spring season (which means they have less time to store up enough fat and weight they need for winter).

Groundhog hibernation and groundhog day

When groundhogs come out from their burrows after hibernation, it’s celebrated in many parts of the world.

This day is celebrated as “Groundhog Day”, which falls on the 2nd of February each year. This day usually falls as a midpoint between spring and summer, which is exactly the period when groundhogs start arising from hibernation.

Although this day is celebrated around many parts of the world like the United States and Canada; Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania may be well known as holding the largest known celebration.

According to a tradition, it’s believed that when groundhogs see their own shadow, they will go back into the burrow for hibernation and there will then follow another six weeks of winter.

If groundhogs don’t see any shadow, it means that spring is around the corner. This tradition has begun during the period when Germans first settled in Pennsylvania.

Groundhogs also instinctively know when they need to come out of hibernation because of warmer weather which naturally triggers metabolism and appetite.

In winter groundhogs adapt to down-regulating their metabolism and appetite with the cold weather. So when spring is emerging they wake up and come out ready to search for food. 

However, how this animal predicts and forecasts the season has only proved or worked 50% of the time.

So now, depending on whether or not you see a groundhog in your backyard is not necessarily an indication of warmer weather, as the groundhog’s weather predictions may not always be successful. 

Learning resources

We’ve found the ideal resources to continue your learning at home and at school on amazon. Help support our efforts for wildlife causes and keep this site working for nature. Amazon also donates to Wild-life related charities!

Groundhog Secrets: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Woodchucks

Discover the secret world of the groundhog through the eyes of Margot the woodchuck while gaining a close-up view of wildlife in whimsical photo illustrations. Do you want to know more about the woodchuck? Then this book packed with information about groundhogs (who are also called woodchucks), is for you!

Video resources

So finally

We hope this groundhog hibernation information has been useful, let us know your experiences in the comments below, and we’d always welcome any groundhog images or stories you might have.

This content has been checked and verified by a qualified veterinary practitioner. The article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policy.

Michael

A Certified Ecologist and an Entomologist, Michael has been interested in all aspects of Nature for many years. It's only now he's decided, along with his partner Fran, to begin documenting what he knows.

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