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This Week’s Creature Feature ... Almost Time for a Long Winter’s Nap

As temperatures and food supplies drop, mammals hunker down to hibernate

Seen enough of the groundhog, which experts, admirers and detractors alike agree was the Mystery Creature who so fascinated Bay Weekly readers?
    Good thing. Because whatever you call him, her and them — groundhogs, woodchucks or whistle pigs — these omnipresent neighbors are ending their season above ground.
    “Groundhogs are especially fat at this time of year, in preparation for a long winter’s sleep,” writes John Taylor of Edgewater, the naturalist, artist and author of Chesapeake Spring. “Any time now, he will make his descent underground, sometimes as much as six feet. Often he will bury himself alive, closing off his sleeping chamber with soil.”
    Groundhogs are not our only hibernating mammals, according to Pete Jayne, who specializes in fur-bearers at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Groundhogs, chipmunks, bats all hibernate, but not just yet.
    Hibernation is dependent on both temperatures and food supplies and, at least for now, food is still ample and temperatures warm. By early December, conditions will change, beginning the season of hibernation.
    Chipmunks — which are quite common in Maryland woodlands though we might not see them in our back yards — and groundhogs burrow in the ground for their hibernation. Bats hibernate in old trees or buildings, attics and caves.
    Bears are Maryland’s biggest hibernators. Pregnant sows go to sleep first. In our four western counties, they go to den in the last two weeks of November. Males follow shortly thereafter. Dens, says Jayne, “are almost anywhere you — or they — can think of, including under buildings and porches as well as rock outcroppings and dense thickets of rhododendron.”
    They and the other hibernators will likely sleep until April or May. Unlike squirrels, which might hunker down in their leafy nests during a really cold spell, true hibernators can’t wake up for a couple of hours and then reenter the lowered metabolic state.
    Groundhogs don’t read calendars, so they’re likely to hibernate right through Groundhog Day on February 2. That’s the earliest stage of their breeding season, however, so, Jayne says “a few early birds could be out there.”�