Thursday, February 1, 2018

Groundhogs Day - Is Winter Ending?

February 2nd is Groundhogs Day and an all-important celebration in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as well as around the United States. It’s based on the idea of a groundhog, also called a woodchuck, emerging from its hibernation to predict the weather. If the groundhog sees its shadow and returns to its burrow, there will be six more weeks of winter. But, if the animal does not see its shadow, then spring is right around the corner.

In Pennsylvania, where the annual ceremony is held, the natives and townfolk know the famous furry fellow as “Punxsutawney Phil.” And Phil doesn’t live in the ceremonial stump on Gobler’s Knob where he emerges, but in Phil’s Burrow which is an indoor structure next to the library resembling a natural habitat where he dines on corn on the cob, carrots, celery, lettuce and kale, and granola bars. The latter is used to keep his ever-growing front teeth from getting too long.

Also known as the whistle pig, the groundhog is actually a member of the squirrel family. They are slow, lumbering runners and when they sense danger head for their dens which are tunnels in the ground. They are covered with two coats of fur: a dense grey undercoat and a longer coat of banded guard hairs giving them their distinctive "frosted" appearance. The young groundhogs are often called chucklings.

The primary predators of groundhogs are hawks, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, dogs, bears, eagles, and humans. And, let’s not forget the automobile. Although groundhogs rarely come in contact with humans, they are capable of are capable of carrying fleas, ticks and rabies.

Groundhogs are among the few mammals that enter into true hibernation starting the end of October and until late February. They are strict herbivores. In the wild, they eat a variety of vegetables including soybeans, beans, peas, carrot tops, alfalfa and grasses. They prefer to burrow nearby where they feed—in fields, pastures, along fences, roadsides, and near building foundations, and bases of trees. For the farmers and gardeners, groundhogs are a nuisance and the holes they make in fields often result in damage to equipment. Foundations to building are often compromised; and these critters have been known to cause electrical outages from gnawing on underground wires.

But despite his ability to be a nuisance, every year since 1887, thousands of people gather in Punxsutawney on February 2nd to await the prediction of spring. He is so popular that in 1995, Phil flew to Chicago for a guest appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which aired on Groundhog Day of that year.

So let’s have some fun. Will it be an early spring…or six more weeks of winter? Only Phil…and maybe the weatherman, knows for sure.