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Area youngsters learn about groundhogs

February 3, 2017 GMT

Lee Conservation Center assistant naturalist Clay Steele visited the Fort Madison Public Library during Wacky Wednesday hour to share history, stories and activities with children about Groundhog Day.

Steele told about 10 children about groundhogs’ habitat, predators and how they contribute to Groundhog Day. Groundhogs – also known as marmota monax, or woodchucks – are small mammals and they are the largest species in the squirrel family.

“Part of that is giving kids that awareness and those connections that they haven’t even thought of,” said Steele.

This week’s Wacky Wednesday evening started with a reading from “Punxsutawney Phyllis,” which was written by Susanna Leonard Hill and illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler. Children listened with excitement as Steele read through the book, which describe a young groundhog named Phyllis who always dreamed of taking over the job of her uncle, Punxsutawney Phil.

If you are not familiar with the old folklore story, some believe a groundhog’s behavior can predict the weather. Steele said the legend dates to early German settlers in Pennsylvania, who had a tradition that if the sun shone on Candlemas Day – which was celebrated on Feb. 2 – there will be more weeks of winter.

The settlers adopted groundhogs in the area as harbingers of the tale. A sunny day that allows the groundhog to see his shadow will send him scurrying back into his burrow – a sign of six more weeks of winter.

The country’s most famous groundhog is Punxsutawney Phil of Pennsylvania. According to history.com, Punxsutawney held its first Groundhog Day celebration in the U.S. on Feb. 2, 1887.

Steele said he enjoys teaching about groundhogs.

“I just like to make kids more familiar to the type of stuff that they don’t get expose to, which is why I always try to bring in other animals that fit into that animals ecosystem,’ he said.

Steele said groundhogs typically start to hibernate in October and emerge in early spring.

Steele brought a tub full of animal fur plates from different types of animals, including groundhogs, whistle pigs and land beavers. He even showed some of the predators of groundhogs such as skunks, red foxes, coyotes, bobcats and badgers. Steele said some of the predators try to eat the groundhogs during hibernation.

Steele said groundhogs are widely dispersed in North America and common in the northeastern and central United States and Canada. They live near open countries and along the edges of woodland, and are rarely far from a burrow entrance. He also described the burrowers, which are places groundhogs build complex multi-chamber burrows deep into the ground for hibernation, sleeping, nurturing their young, storing food and nesting. Groundhogs are skillful climbers and swimmers, which helps them escape less-skilled predators.

“They communicate with one another to alert that there is a potential threat near by using a high-pitched whistle,” said Steele.

Steele said the groundhogs also create escape goats from burrows because the mammals never know what’s going to try to climb into their tunnel. Steele clarified that some predators and animals such as weasels, spotted skunks, fox squirrel and flying squirrel use the abandon or empty burrows as their own to search for food and nesting.

Next month, the Lee County Conservation naturalist will be back at the library to show some live animals.