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Whether or not we get another six weeks of winter will be determined, well … once we see what the weather does for the next month and a half. Or, if you want to be technical about it, according to the calendar and the designated seasons, there will in fact be six more weeks (and a few days) of winter. The first day of spring is March 20.
But if you want to have some fun with it, why not buy in to the whole Groundhog Day thing? Tradition has it that a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil can predict whether or not winter will continue, based on whether or not he sees his shadow, and February 2 has long been the day for this somewhat questionable but certainly endearing furry creature prognostication.
Groundhog Day was first recognized in Punxsutawney, a borough in Jefferson County, Penn., by Weathers Wags in 1896, but there is no record of his prediction; and in 1887, Phil made his first official trek to Gobbler’s Knob and saw shadow, according to groundhog.org.
In a write-up on history.com: “On this day in 1887, Groundhog Day, featuring a rodent meteorologist, is celebrated for the first time at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. According to tradition, if a groundhog comes out of its hole on this day and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather; no shadow means an early spring.”
“In 1887, a newspaper editor belonging to a group of groundhog hunters from Punxsutawney called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club declared that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog,” according to the same history website writeup.
So how accurate is our four-legged weather forecaster?
According to a February 2, 2017, article by Remy Melina, “How Accurate Are Punxsutawney Phil’s Groundhog Day Forecasts?” (on livescience.com): “Data from the Stormfax Almanac’s data shows that Phil’s six-week prognostications have been correct about 39 percent of the time.”
The website groundhog.org lists all of the predictions and the records show that Phil saw his shadow 103 times, did not see his shadow 18 times, and that there is no account ten times.
There are other groundhogs who make predictions but, according to groundhog.org: “Punxsutawney Phil is the only true weather forecasting groundhog. The others are just impostors.”
Punxsutawney Phil has been at it for a long time, but it has only been made possible via a beverage not available on supermarket shelves (or in streams for groundhogs who may be reading this).
According to groundhog.org, Punxsutawney Phil gets his longevity from drinking the “elixir of life,” a secret recipe. Phil takes one sip every summer at the Groundhog Picnic and it magically gives him seven more years of life.
What Do Groundhogs Do?
There is more to the groundhog than making weather predictions. Also called a woodchuck, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy & Environmental Protection (DEEP), they are rodents, related to mice, squirrels, porcupines, and beavers. It is the largest member of the squirrel family in Connecticut, according to DEEP, which also reports that the woodchuck’s range extends from eastern Alaska, through much of Canada, into the eastern United States, and south to northern Georgia.
“Excellent diggers, woodchucks dig both simple and complex burrow systems, whose depth and length depend on the type of soil. Most burrows are 25 to 30 feet long and from 2 to 5 feet deep, with at least 2 entrances, although sometimes more. The main entrance is often the most conspicuous, with a large mound of freshly dug dirt nearby. The other less visible entrances are used for escape purposes. A nesting chamber for sleeping and raising young is found at the end of the main tunnel; a separate toilet chamber helps keep the burrow clean. Woodchucks may have two burrows: a winter den, in a wooded area, that is deep enough to keep them from freezing, and also a summer den, in open flat or gently rolling areas,” according to DEEP.
“They have adapted quite well to living around people and can be found in yards, highway right-of-ways, cemeteries, parks, and other suburban/urban habitats. However, not everyone is happy about having woodchucks around because they often feed on vegetable gardens, agricultural crops, and fruit and ornamental trees and can damage lawns and fields due to their burrowing. The DEEP Wildlife Division can provide advice for people experiencing damage,” said Kathy Herz, outreach program biologist for the CT DEEP Wildlife Division.
DEEP gives advice on controlling groundhogs, including erecting a fence and putting fence a foot and a half to two feet underground.
“This stocky, medium-sized mammal is built for digging with short, strong legs and long, curved claws on the front feet. The fur ranges from light to dark brown, with lighter guard hairs giving a frosted appearance. The feet are dark brown to black. The woodchuck has a short, bushy, almost flattened tail, and small, rounded ears that can close over the ear openings to keep out debris while the animal is underground. Males and females are similar in appearance, although males are slightly larger,” according to DEEP.
“The woodchuck is a true hibernator. During winter, the heart, respiration, and metabolism rates of woodchucks are greatly reduced and the animals live off the fat reserves they built up over the previous summer and fall. By the end of October, most woodchucks have begun their winter sleep, curled up in nests of dried grass and leaves located in burrows below the frost line.
Woodchucks usually arise slowly from hibernation during March,” Ms Herz said. “Woodchucks emit a shrill whistle when alarmed, followed by a chattering ‘tchuck, tchuck’ sound. They do not get their name from chucking wood, but rather from a corruption of the Algonquin word ‘wuchak.’”
DEEP reports that woodchucks can be fierce fighters when cornered by potential predators, which include dogs, coyotes, foxes, bears, bobcats, mink, weasels, hawks, and owls. Although woodchucks are primarily terrestrial, they can climb trees up to 15 feet or more to escape an enemy.
Apparently woodchucks also help out some of their enemies without knowing it.
Abandoned burrows of woodchucks are used for den sites or escape cover by a variety of wildlife, including skunks, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, opossums, weasels, and snakes, according to DEEP.
“Groundhog Day provides a chance for people to learn about this interesting animal that sometimes gets a bad rap because it likes to raid backyard gardens or because it might predict six more weeks of winter. Appreciating our backyard wildlife opens the door for discovering the many other animals that call Connecticut home,” Ms Herz said.