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Happiness in Hibernation
March 29, 2017 by Gar Concannon

Spring is officially here!  Recently I wrote about the dietary habits of wildlife in winter in High Park and hopefully you managed to find some time for some animal spotting in High Park since then.

If not, rest assured as spring is upon us and we are starting to feel the early season warmth.  The Cherry Blossoms of High Park will be out in no time and the snow and slush will be a distant memory.  Before all that though, High Park’s animal life will be stirring and making appearances that will certainly brighten up your walks.

One of my favourite mammals to observe in High Park is the Eastern Chipmunk.  They are a member of the squirrel family.  You will spot these mostly on the wooded trails around High Park in spring.  The Eastern Chipmunk of High Park will spend most of their time in winter months in burrows.  To make a burrow, the chipmunk will dig a tunnel and will then fill the spaces with seeds, leaves and grass.  They will carry the seeds in pouches in their cheeks which shows the industrious nature of these creatures.  

Although they are not hibernators in the true meaning of the word, the Eastern Chipmunk will enter a torpid state called shallow hibernation that allows them to wake every few weeks to snack on their reserves that they spend the fall accumulating.  Chipmunks will start prepping for winter as early as July to prepare for the long winters.  In early spring, we will see a rise in their activity in High Park.  Chances are you will hear their chirping sound before you see them.  The snow will not slow them down either as they are known to dig up through a metre of snow If they are determined enough.

The largest member of the squirrel family to start making appearances around this time of year is the groundhog.  Legend has it that these fascinating creatures can also predict the weather and seasons!  We could really do with their help of late with this ever-changing weather!  The groundhog like the Eastern Chipmunk are fantastic architects navigating through burrows that they carve out with their impressively sharp claws.  During the warmer months, a groundhog’s incisors grow about 1.6mm each week to keep up with their eating schedule.  It is said that they can eat up to a pound of food per sitting.  This figure is even more impressive considering the total body weight of an adult groundhog is roughly 13lbs!

Groundhogs are very much like ourselves in the summer months.  They like to eat and to spend time sunning themselves.  What’s not to like about them?!  

The groundhog will go into true hibernation mode during the winter.  Their heartbeat slows from 80 beats per minute to 5 beats per minute.  Their respiration reduces from 16 breaths per minute to as few as 2 breaths per minute.  Their sustained feeding frenzy during the summer and fall months makes sense when we see how adaptive their bodies are during the winter hibernation period.

In February, male groundhogs will seek out a female partner and as spring progresses the mating season will continue.  During winter, they burrow in wooded areas but as the warmer weather approaches you will find them nesting in grassier areas. Although groundhog appearances in High Park are rare, keep an eye out for these wonderful rodents on your next trip, if it’s a warm sunny spring day, you might even see one sunbathing!  

The Eastern Chipmunk and groundhog’s ability to adapt and to survive the colder months never ceases to amaze.  Their instinctive ability to prepare for the changing seasons is just one facet of their extraordinary lives.


 Photo credits

Eastern Chipmunk - Gilles Gonthier

Groundhog - Matt MacGillivray

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