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Don’t Drive Angry!


February 2, 2022

Thanks to the WSJ for this timely article. The annual practice of using a groundhog or another furry, hibernating animal to predict winter’s end dates to the days of the Roman Empire.

In 1887, locals in a little Pennsylvania town called Punxsutawney made a trek to Gobbler’s Knob, a wooded area about 2 miles out of town, filled with burrowing rodents to make the forecast. And with that, the legend of Punxsutawney Phil was born, leading to the U.S.’s first official Groundhog Day.

What happens on Groundhog Day?

If the groundhog, a naturally shy creature, spots its shadow when it pokes its nose out of its burrow on Feb. 2, the tradition goes, it’s going to be a long, frigid six weeks. If the animal doesn’t see a shadow, that means an early spring and warmer temperatures will soon start rolling in. However, biologists who study groundhogs, such as retired Penn State University professor Stam Zervanos, say the animal is checking out conditions for other, more personal reasons. “In most cases, the males come out to protect their territory from other males and to find out where the female burrows are, because they won’t have seen them since mating in March the year before,” he said. “I doubt very much whether it cares about seeing its shadow or not.”

After scouting their territory, the groundhog will return to its burrow to sleep a few more weeks—emerging for a frenetic week that will lead to a baby boom in April.

Why does Groundhog Day fall on Feb. 2?

A tradition of a Feb. 5 celebration to encourage a speedy spring traveled with the Romans as they moved through Europe. In northern Germany, people married it to folklore of their own.

“Before Christianity, they developed a tradition that if a hedgehog saw its own shadow, there would be six more hard weeks of winter. If not, it would soon be spring,” Mr. Zervanos said. They used hedgehogs, he added, because there were no groundhogs in Europe.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the date shifted to Feb. 2, to blend with a Catholic tradition known as Candlemas, Mr. Zervanos said. People would light a candle and put it in their window or take one to their church in honor of the Virgin Mary. But the local tradition of looking for a hibernating animal to predict the coming weather remained.

“That became the day to look for a hedgehog, or badger or even a bear in some areas,” he said. “If they see their shadow, six more weeks of winter.” How did Groundhog Day get to North America? German immigrants brought the tradition to the U.S. as early as the 1700s, Mr. Zervanos said. In lieu of hedgehogs, which aren’t found in the U.S., they chose another common woodland inhabitant: the groundhog.

The tradition flourished in particular in Pennsylvania, which had a large German population that came to be known as Pennsylvania Dutch. When town elders in Punxsutawney realized its popularity, they decided to capitalize on it in 1887 by making it synonymous with their now-famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil.

Are there other famous groundhogs?

Punxsutawney Phil isn’t the only groundhog in the spotlight. Woodstock Willie is the celebrated groundhog in Woodstock, Ill.

Rick Bellairs, chairman of Woodstock Groundhog Days, said the town is “a bit of a buzz” as it prepares for the morning of Feb. 2. The event has attracted visitors from across the U.S. and as far away as Germany, France and Australia. A post on the groundhog’s Facebook page said that Mel “recently crossed over the rainbow bridge.” And because Milltown Mel’s fellow groundhogs are hibernating, there are no babies who would be able to replace him for this year’s Groundhog Day, the Jan. 30 post said. The Groundhog Day celebration in Milltown, N.J., which was set for Wednesday, has been canceled.

The Milltown Mel tradition has continued for 10 years, according to the town’s website. Those who cared for Milltown Mel aren’t shocked, the post said, since a groundhog’s average lifespan is three years. Russell Einbinder, a member of the Milltown Wranglers, said the groundhog that died was either 4 or 5 years old. The previous one lived for about seven years, “which is ancient for a groundhog,” he said.

How many times has Punxsutawney Phil gotten it right?

If you ask Dan McGinley—a member of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s “Inner Circle,” which cares for the groundhog and carries out the festivities—all the time. “One hundred percent of the time. That’s a number. Punxsutawney Phil has been accurate 100% of the time,” Mr. McGinley said. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, however, recently tweeted that Punxsutawney Phil has been right about 40% of the time over the last decade.

What is a Groundhog?

Furry and harmless, except to farmers’ crops, groundhogs are part of the marmot family, which means they are related to squirrels and are technically rodents, Mr. Zervanos said. They live solitary lives in underground burrows and sometimes even have second homes around their territory. Many Americans know them as woodchucks, Mr. Zervanos said.

Groundhogs spend the winter months in deep hibernation, sometimes slowing their heart rate down to about five beats a minute, according to Mr. Zervanos. “They’ll come out of their torpor every seven to 10 days, warm up a little bit, then go back into hibernation,” he said.

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