Whatever you call it, Ground Hog Day is harmless fun


Early this morning (Feb. 2) on Ground Hog Day, handlers at Gobbler’s Knob, Pa. removed Punxsutawny Phil from his den. If he saw his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter. No shadow, and we get an early spring.

At least that’s the myth, the legend, the old wives’ tale. Of course, it’s all hogwash. Rousting a ground hog from hibernation to see its shadow on Feb. 2 is no better a predictor of winter weather than checking wooly bears color bands in the fall.

But it’s all harmless fun. Just ask the folks in Punxsutawny, Pa.

Ground Hog Day is a huge event there; thousands of visitors attend and 43 corporate sponsors help make it happen. And it’s the one day of the year ground hogs get just a bit of respect.

Around the country

And Pennsylvania isn’t the only place that really gets into Ground Hog Day. Even states where ground hogs don’t occur have come up with ways to get in on the action. In Ohio, for example, Buckeye Chuck assumes Phil’s role.

In Michigan it’s Woodchuck Woody. Staten Island Chuck takes center stage in New York. And in West Virginia, it’s French Creek Freddie, named for his home at the State Wildlife Center.

Maine has W. Chuck Berry. And the Tennessee Aquarium is home to Chattanooga Chuck. Because ground hogs, which are large ground squirrels, occur only in the eastern United States, some western states have come up with creative ways to be part of the holiday.

Sarah Palin decreed Feb. 2 as “Marmot Day” while she was governor of Alaska. Several species of marmots live in western states.

Colorado relies on the wisdom of Flatiron Freddie, a yellow-bellied marmot. And Oklahoma, where ground hogs do occur, tries to cheat the system by using sibling grizzly bears, Will and Wiley, at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

In reality

The silliness of all this is that ground hogs at mid latitudes rarely venture from their burrows on Feb. 2. They are still sound asleep deep in their burrows.

After they enter their winter dens in the fall, ground hogs plug the entrance to the burrow and curl into a snuggly ball. Their body temperature drops about 57 degrees to 40 F, and their pulse drops from more than 100 beats per minute to just four beats per minute.

The history

Clearly few wild ground hogs see the light of day on Feb. 2. So how did the tradition of Ground Hog Day come to be? It actually began centuries ago with a European church holiday, Candlemas.

A verse from an old English song set the stage.“If Candlemas be fair and bright; Come Winter, have another flight; If Candlemas brings clouds and rain; Go Winter, and come not again.”

In that short verse and others like it from Europe, lay the roots of Ground Hog Day. Candlemas dates back to early Christianity in Europe, celebrating Christ as the “light of the world.”

On Feb. 2, the clergy blessed and distributed candles for the people to display in their windows. Early Europeans watched to see if hedgehogs saw their shadows to predict the remainder of winter In the absence of hedgehogs in North America, early Americans decided ground hogs would make a reasonable substitute.

German settlers brought with them the tradition of Candlemas. The belief was that at the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox, if the weather was fair, the second half of winter would be cold and cruel.

If the skies were cloudy, an early spring would follow. The first record of using ground hogs to predict winter weather dates to 1842 in Berks County, Pa. For more information about Ground hog Day, visit www.groundhog.org.

Snowy Owl update: In last week’s column I described Project SNOWstorm, research to learn as much as possible about snowy owls during this impressive irruption year.

Scientists are catching owls and equipping them with transmitters to track their movements.

“Philly,” trapped at Philadelphia International Airport on Jan. 9, was relocated 40 miles west to Lancaster County farmland.

It returned to the airport just two days later. Sadly, Philly was hit and killed by a UPS cargo plane at daybreak on Jan. 29. The plane was not damaged.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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