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Walk Softly – It’s Groundhog Day!

by Geoffrey Carpentier

Well, it’s getting close, only a few days until those slumbering groundhogs awaken, for a few minutes, to predict the onset of spring or the prolongation of winter. So how did this odd tradition actually begin?

According to many authorities, Groundhog Day has its roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas, which is celebrated on February 2nd. Falling midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, February 2nd was a very important date and had meaning to many ancient societies.

From a Christian perspective, Candlemas represented the feast commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the holy temple in Jerusalem. Candlemas was therefore a day when clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The number of candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. In certain parts of Europe, Christians believed a sunny Candlemas meant another 40 days of cold and snow.

Many cultures eventually expanded on this concept. In Germany, Candlemas was deemed to be the date when fieldwork and the preparations for the upcoming growing season could commence and when the monies owing for crop supplies was due.

Germans also developed their own take on the story, relying on whether or not badgers, hedgehogs and other small animals glimpsed their own shadows. When German immigrants settled Pennsylvania, in the 1840s, they brought the custom with them, choosing the native groundhog (Marmota monax) as the annual forecaster. Coincidentally, the groundhog was a major food source for the German settlers and as such was an inherent part of their culture in different ways.

The first official Groundhog Day celebration took place on February 2nd, 1887, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It was the brainchild of local newspaper editor, Clymer Freas, who sold a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters (known collectively as the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club) on the idea. The men reportedly trekked to a site called Gobbler’s Knob, where the first forecasting groundhog became the bearer of bad news when he saw his shadow. The shadow being very easily visible, against the snow, indicated winter was still very much present, going nowhere soon, hence the prediction factor. Today, the yearly festivities in Punxsutawney are presided over by a band of local dignitaries, known as the Inner Circle. Its members wear top hats and conduct the official proceedings in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. Across North America, other municipalities sponsor their own celebrations e.g. Staten Island Chuck, Birmingham Bill, Shubenacadie Sam and Wiarton Willy to name a few.

So how accurate are these rodents? Well it varies. Studies by the National Climatic Data Center and the Canadian weather service have yielded a dismal success rate of around 50 percent for Punxsutawney Phil. Staten Island Chuck, on the other hand, is reportedly accurate almost 80 percent of the time, while our own Wiarton Willy only predicts correctly about 32 percent of the time.

The reality is, in Canada spring doesn’t come early and in mid-March, in virtually every year, one can still expect winter to linger.

Quickly then, here’s a brief primer on groundhog biology. Also known as the woodchuck, these rodents, which are part of the squirrel family, are quite large (about 65 cm nose to tail), weigh 5.5 to 6 kg, and can live for 6-10 years in the wild.

They overwinter in burrows, hibernating early in the autumn, and surviving without food by reducing their metabolic and heart rates and body temperature. By February, they can have lost as much as half their body weight, so, in the spring, they voraciously eat grasses, wildflowers, berries and insects. They are excellent climbers and swimmers, and utter a characteristic loud whistle when frightened or amorous! They build elaborate tunnels with multiple entrances and escape paths. They reportedly can remove an estimated 320 kg of dirt when digging a burrow. The tunnels can be up to 1.5 metres deep and up to 15 metres long! They normally consist of two to five entrances, thus giving them a better chance of escaping in case a predator was to enter.

So there you have it; I can’t wait for spring and a shadowless February!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram

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