Groundhog Day: A Celebration of Rodent Meteorologists

  • January 28, 2013
  • Jenna Maxwell
Groundhog Day 2013 is this coming Saturday - February 2nd. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?  Groundhogs, aka woodchuck’s, aka whistle-pigs, are apparently chock full of many useful talents.  Today’s featured woodchuck story is all about the woodchuck (groundhog) that mastered weather prediction and gained infamy because of it.  Basically, this delightful animal tale all started with an overgrown rodent named Phil, but we’ll get to him in just a second. Back in the early days of our country, (when apparently people believed just about anything), some pretty crazy rumors started about the woodchuck.  Woodchucks, or groundhogs as they are more commonly known here in the US, were purported to be able to predict the weather, in particular, the length of winter.   This supposed weather-predicting skill was more likely just due to some real quirkiness noticed in natural groundhog behavior that somehow got a bit misconstrued; but like a lot of things in this crazy world of ours, groundhog weather-predicting has become an annual tradition that has sorta stuck with us.  Here’s how it all got started. Groundhogs hibernate in their burrows during the winter.  During this hibernation, their heartbeat slows down dramatically and their body temperature drops sharply.  Sometime in early February, male groundhogs do leave their burrows sometimes, but it has nothing to do with the weather. (Sorry!)  Typically at this time, male groundhogs are looking for a mate.  They will then take their new little groundhog lady friend back with them into the burrow (love nest?), not emerging again until sometime in March. At some point during the observation of groundhogs, German immigrants in Pennsylvania (who apparently had nothing better to do) noted that oft times the groundhog would pop out of his hole, apparently get frightened by his own shadow and then promptly head back down into his cozy little home.  Somehow, this particular scenario morphed into an odd form of weather forecasting, which (of course) assumed that the groundhog had felt that wintertime was still too fully in gear for him to even think about coming out to deal with it--thus he b-lined it right back into his burrow to continue sleeping.  Ahhhh. In 1887, a very confident newspaper editor from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (who also belonged to a group of groundhog hunters called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Hunters) declared that he had the only truly official weather-predicting groundhog.  The unique, weather forecasting groundhog’s name was known as “Punxsutawney Phil”.  Since this time there have been a long series of “Phil’s”--all with the supposed ability to predict the duration of winter.  This phenomenon is based simply on whether or not Phil sees his shadow or not upon emergence from his burrow on February the 2nd. In Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day tradition has evolved into quite a local sensation.  A 3-day celebration is held with lots of local revelry around Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney.  The locals (and many others who simply just tune in to hear what’s up with the weather) watch carefully to see what ol’ Phil has to say about the future of winter.  A groundhog that sees his shadow means six more weeks of winter.  No shadow seen means ol’ Phil is the official harbinger proclaiming the onset of an early spring.   Many copycat Groundhog Day celebrations are also noted around the country with various versions of rodent meteorologists dutifully involved.  Whether it’s about weather or just another excuse to party, it seems that Groundhog Day is here to stay.  Stay tuned.  “Punxsutawney Phil” is set to make this year’s weather prognosis on February 2nd.