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French Creek Freddie emerges from his cozy den at the 2021 West Virginia Wildlife Center during a Groundhog Day celebration. / File photo courtesy Tyler Evert, West Virginia Department of Commerce/W.Va. Division of Natural Resources

Getting to know groundhogs: Fun facts about French Creek Freddie

FRENCH CREEK – In the wee hours of this cold Tuesday morning, Punxsutawney Phil emerged from his den at Gobbler’s Knob to give his prediction for the next six weeks.

Although Pennsylvania-based rodent saw his shadow, predicting six more weeks of winter weather, we, in West Virginia look to another, clearly more reliable source of information for our prognostication on Feb. 2, Groundhog Day: Upshur County’s own French Creek Freddie, the resident meteorologist at the West Virginia Wildlife Center in French Creek.

Some people look to other weather-foretelling animals to make weather-related guesses, such stories about cows who lie down in pastures to save a dry spot indicating it is going to rain; bees that leave flower beds which means bad weather is on the way; and wooly worms, who predict weather with more black on them – signaling a longer, colder, snowier winter – or more brown, which is supposed to mean winter will be warmer and milder.

Here, our most trusted weather telling rodent is our own famous groundhog, French Creek Freddie. Freddie has been making his weather prognostications – which have been correct 50 to 60 percent of the time – since he started his predictions in 1978. This year, Freddie’s 15 seconds of fame came after an opposite prediction from Phil. Freddie has let folks know that, in the absence of seeing his shadow, he feels West Virginia is in for an early spring, which is just what most residents were hoping to hear.

Last year, Freddie was joined by more than 400 fans cheering him on, from infants just four months old to people 82 years old, and that audience included folks from across the U.S. clear to California. This Groundhog Day, because of COVID-19 gathering restrictions, Groundhog Day enthusiasts were only able to view French Creek Freddie exiting his den to make his prediction online at the W.Va. Division of Natural Resources Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sites, which may still be viewed here or here.

While Freddie was still basking in the warmth of his den early Tuesday morning, West Virginia State Wildlife Center Wildlife Biologist Trevor Moore shared some interesting, fun facts about groundhogs, which he said are also referred to woodchucks, whistle pig or land beavers. Moore said groundhogs are actually members of the squirrel family.

“They are one of the biggest ground squirrels – so think of them as really big chipmunks,” Moore said, laughing. “They are true hibernators and while hibernating, their body temperatures drop to about what it is in the surrounding areas. All of their metabolic processes slow down such as their breathing and heart rates.”

Moore said the reason groundhogs really emerge from their hibernation dens in February is to look for a mate or for a new burrow.

“Groundhogs are solitary animals. They mate and then the dad usually leaves. Once mom has the pups, or kits, after four to six weeks, she raises them. After the pups are about two months, mom kicks them out to live on their own,” he said, adding it was a very quick process. Groundhogs usually give birth to four to nine pups, which may also be referred to as kits or chucklings.

“Groundhogs are rodents, and they have large front incisor teeth that are continuously growing throughout their lives,” Moore said. “That is why they eat so much during the summer and fall. Besides using the food to put on weight for when they hibernate, the food helps keep their incisors knocked down. They can eat through about two pounds of vegetation during the summer months a day.”

Moore said during the summer, groundhogs can dig new burrows and during that process, they can move about 700 pounds of dirt.

“Sometimes farmers find that groundhogs are a nuisance because their holes can injure cattle, but groundhogs are very important for the ecosystems,” he said. “They provide extensive burrow systems that other animals use such as foxes, badgers and rabbits.”

Moore said that groundhogs are found in the Americas, mostly in North America, and particularly along the East Coast and up into Canada.

“How this started was when German immigrants came over to Pennsylvania, they originally used hedgehogs for Groundhog Day to do their weather predicting,” Moore said. “They carried that tradition with them, but since there were no hedgehogs, they used groundhogs. That is how Groundhog Day got started in the U.S.”

He said some predators of groundhogs include foxes, rattlesnakes, wolves, coyotes, eagles and wolverines.

“Basically, anything bigger than them that can get down into their burrows can get them,” Moore said.

Moore said typically groundhogs grow to about two feet long and weigh approximately 10 to 15 pounds. He said their temperaments may seem grumpy; however, he reminded groundhog enthusiasts that groundhogs view humans as predators. He wanted to remind everyone that while we see groundhogs being handled, especially on Groundhog Day, handling a groundhog is dangerous.

“Their teeth are designed to go through wood and vegetation and their bites can be quite nasty,” Moore said. “They are fairly skittish, but if they are confronted and cornered, they are not going to give up easily.”

Moore shared one last unique fact about groundhogs.

“They get a form of liver disease that is very similar to hepatitis in humans,” Moore shared. “Groundhogs have been instrumental in helping scientists learn more about how to treat hepatitis in humans.”

The West Virginia State Wildlife Center is open to visitors seven days a week. From Nov. 1 to March 31, hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with free admission.

The center is home to French Creek Freddie and nearly 30 native and introduced animal species. Additional information is available at wvdnr.gov/wildlife/wildlifecenter.shtm.

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