Each year, I have to chuckle as Feb. 2 approaches, for it’s on that day that a rodent perceived as a pest by most for the rest of the 364 days on the calendar becomes important. Yes, indeed, the animal that also has received a modicum of fame in that tongue twister, “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” is actually accorded rock-star status.
Now, if you’ve long wondered what’s the answer to that age-old wood-chucking question, according to Richard Thomas, a wildlife expert from New York, the question is quite moot since groundhogs have zero interest in chucking wood. Now, if we’re talking about chucking dirt, well, on a good burrow-digging day, woodchucks can chuck around 35 cubic feet.
As arguably the most organized of the burrowing animals, you may not know that, in October, the groundhog creates a network of tunnels and dens in well-drained soil. Scientists tell us that each den has a specific purpose, including one den used for the six- to 12-pound rodent’s bathroom biz.
As far as the animal’s one-day celebrity, well, that can be traced back to Germany, according to Parade Magazine writer Christine Copelan, who said in her article “The Real Origin of Groundhog Day” that in Germany in ancient times at the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the clergy on Feb. 2 celebrated Candlemas. It was on this day when candles were blessed and distributed to shed some light on the rest of winter.
For whatever reason, the celebration began including a hedgehog as a means to predict the remaining length of winter. Should Mr. HH cast a shadow, supposedly there would be six more weeks of winter.
In the mid-18th century, there was a substantial German migration to Pennsylvania, and the Candlemas tradition came along as well. Because of the abundance of groundhogs, the prognosticating duties were bestowed upon a new burrower.
After newspapermen at the Punxsutawney Spirit got involved and lent some publicity, organizers held their first official Groundhog Day in 1887 on a wooded hill a couple miles outside of Punxsutawney called Gobbler’s Knob. The editor of the paper, a groundhog hunter himself, proclaimed the newly christened “Phil” to be the only legit weather forecaster in the nation. You might be wondering if groundhog is something only ardent game-eaters like those Clampetts of Beverly Hills fame would enjoy. Well, there are those who describe the taste as quite pleasing, a combination of pork and chicken, which sounds mighty tasty to this carnivore.
Of course, most have seen video of the yearly event when Phil is pulled out of that faux tree stump to go about that shadow-casting business, so that begs the question, “Do groundhogs really emerge on Feb. 2 of their own volition?”
According to Penn State’s Emeritus Professor of Biology Stam Zervanos, sometime during the first week of February, groundhogs do indeed emerge after around four months underground to look for a mate, since timing is vital for the species. Offspring need to arrive by early April, so, when food is most available in early May, the juvenile groundhogs can take full advantage.
Now, if you’re wondering about the accuracy of Punxy Phil’s predictions as to whether or not winter will last six more weeks, between the years of 2011 and 2020, Phil’s work is no better than a coin flip, at 50 percent, according to what I could find. That’s not much better than my efforts years ago in my young and foolish days betting pro football games (and routinely losing) each weekend.
As for the fame bestowed upon Phil and his lesser-known mates, there was a spike following the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray. Following that, visitors to Gobbler’s Knob have, some years, exceeded 30,000.
While legend has it that the groundhog is immortal, of course, death never takes a holiday for living beings. An elderly groundhog wouldn’t be much more than 8. Of course, that’s a lot longer than Punxy Phil’s celebrity. He and his secondary mates in various parts of the country, including my two favorite named woodchucks, Georgia’s General Beauregard Lee and Louisiana’s Pierre C. Shadeaux, have exactly 24 hours to bask in their lime lights.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected]