How did this critter get its name? The Internet supplies several theories, the least plausible of which is that groundhog burrows take up a lot of space and therefore they "hog" the ground. More plausible is the thought that early English settlers on the east coast of North America thought that the fat little fellows looked remarkably like English hedgehogs (from a distance) and they lived in the ground rather than in hedges. That, of course, leads to the equally pressing question of why hedgehogs are called hedgehogs.
They are also called woodchucks, but not because they could chuck wood. The woodchuck name is clearly an Anglicization of what coastal Native Americans called the little beasty, but, of course, Internet experts can't seem to agree on what the Native American word really was -- I suspect they've been looking at tribal linguistic variations. Native Americans living in areas where hedgehogs ranged appear to have revered woodchucks in various creation/descendency legends along with many other varieties of local fauna. That did not, however, keep groundhog off the menu. Many recipes started with the words: "take two lean woodchucks·." Woodchuck/hedgehog hides also made useful caps and were sewn together to make other items of winter apparel. These customs were passed on to European colonists, and in some places are still current. I've personally eaten a few Georgia groundhogs, and they're not bad -- they're close relatives to squirrels. In coastal Georgia they were called "whistlers" or "whistle-pigs" because of the terrified sound they made when they realized they would soon be stew.
Native Americans knew them well on several levels, but they did not, however, gather on February 2 (with live Television coverage) to watch groundhogs emerge from their winter burrows to see or not to see their shadows. That part came from Europe where, in earlier times, field and forest dwelling Native Europeans reportedly gathered around badger dens and/or bear caves to watch for springtime umbral manifestations. If the subject (badger, bear, or, later in the New World, groundhog) saw its shadow, winter would be prolonged, and, if it didn't, winter would end forthwith. The timing was associated with the feast of Candlemas, a European temporal milestone. It actually made sense -- if clear cold weather was still upon Europe on Candlemas Day, winter's grip had not yet been broken. Mist and rain (and thus no shadows) were the earliest signs of spring.
Groundhogs, like bears, are true hibernators. Their body temperatures drop to about 40 degrees and their pulse rates dip to fifteen beats per minute (from a summer rate of more than 100). They rouse themselves in early spring depending on when the ground starts to warm. The most famous groundhog in the United States, Punxutawney Phil lives in Pennsylvania, too far north for this really to happen on February 2. But that needn't worry anyone -- Phil spends the winter in a heated artificial burrow in a public building in town and is only taken up to Gobblers Knob on the appointed day. There he is ceremoniously plucked from an artificial tree stump and waved before jubilant Pennsylvanians and the national television audience. He is not reported to whistle, so he probably knows by now that he's not destined for the pot.
Groundhogs (scientific name: marmota monax) have always had a very broad range, running from the south-eastern United States up into Atlantic Coastal Canada. They live as far west as the great plains in the United States and all across Canada to east Central Alaska. Further west, other marmots fill the same niche.
The groundhog population is thriving throughout this range, because they do better in farmland and pasturage than in the deep forests that the farms have replaced. But they are serious agricultural pests. They travel considerable distances to raid gardens, and their immense burrows damage farm machinery and destroy building foundations. Horses can easily break their legs when stumbling into burrows. Groundhogs live about eight years in the wild, and females throw litters of up to eight each spring. A fertile pair could account for more than 90,0000 more pair in those eight years -- it's like 400 percent compound interest over 8 years. And the increase doesn't stop with the death of the originals: the ninth year there could be 450,000 pair and the tenth year, two and a quarter million. Increasing human (and decreasing animal) depredation do little to control their population -- the only real limit is the available food supply. Farmers and ranchers try vigorously to exterminate them using gas and guns.
Groundhogs also adapt well to semi-urban environments where natural enemies are few, and in some areas they decimate suburban vegetable gardens. Queasy urban folks trap them and haul them out to the countryside for live release, prompting farmers in the release areas to reach for their guns and gas -- there's nothing a truck garden farmer needs to see less than city people releasing vermin on the roadside.
On that happy note, let's turn to the Internet for more information.
The official site of the Punxutawney media circus: http://www.groundhog.org/
Some history from the Stormfax Weather Almanac: http://www.stormfax.com/ghogday.htm
Wiarton Willie, one of Phil's Canadian cousins: http://www.wiarton-willie.org/index.cfm
Natural history of marmota monax: http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/marmota/m._monax$narrative.html and http://www.cws-scf.ec.gc.ca/hww-fap/woodchuc/woodchuc.html
How to deal with the pests: http://www.msue.msu.edu/msue/imp/modwl/11209804.html
Groundhog Recipes (Eat a pair today, and there will be two and a quarter million less ten years down the road!!):
Roast Woodchuck -- http://www.cin.org/archives/cinkitch/200003/0005.html or http://www.sharon-herald.com/localnews/columnists/rich/rich051296.html
Boiled and Stuffed Woodchuck -- http://www.xoutdoorsmagazine.com/wild_game_cookbook/varmints/Boiled%20And%20Stuffed%20Woodchuck.htm
Fried Woodchuck -- http://www.ces.uga.edu/pubcd/b648-w.html#Woodchuck
Oriental Groundhog -- http://fordinfo.com/his/recf66.txt
Cream Woodchuck Casserole -- http://fordinfo.com/his/recf58.txt
Woodchuck Stew -- http://fordinfo.com/his/recf38.txt
Woodchuck with biscuits -- http://www.bertc.com/woodchuc.htm
(Don't forget to remove the scent glands high on the inside of the forelegs and in the small of the back. The fat is unobjectionable, but usually removed anyway. Older 'chucks -- worn teeth and claws -- benefit from parboiling in water with a teaspoon of baking soda.)