Fun fact: Groundhogs and woodchucks are actually the same animal. Before writing this article, I thought they were two related but separate animals.
Of course, you all know the tradition behind Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney Phil, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, comes out of his burrow on Feb. 2 every year. If he sees his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, then supposedly we’re good to move on to spring. The tradition traces back to the medieval Christian holiday of Candlemas: if the day of celebration was clear and sunny, then winter would be longer; if it was cloudy, winter would end sooner. At some point along the way, people began to use hedgehogs to determine the distinction, and the holiday eventually developed into what we now know as Groundhog Day.
According to a study by the National Climatic Data Center, “Phil has gotten it right less than 45% of the time over the past 27 years.” That sentence is framed like it’s a disappointment. I argue that it should be viewed as quite the accomplishment for a single groundhog who, most would agree, is probably unqualified. Let’s also keep in mind that Phil has been doing this since 1887. All greats go through a slump at some point.
The list of alliteratively-named groundhogs is astonishingly long: Dunkirk Dave, French Creek Freddie, Manitoba Merv, Chattanooga Chuck…it goes on and on. A personal favorite, “General Beauregard Lee” of Lilburn, Georgia, has honorary degrees from both Georgia State University and the University of Georgia. Last year, General Lee didn’t see his shadow, allowing the state to break out the springtime shorts and t-shirts. Except not, because a week after Lee’s prediction, the state was in a state of emergency due to a crippling ice storm which caused power outages to over a million homes in the country. Last week, General Lee once again didn’t see his shadow; meanwhile, we’re already preparing for another winter storm here at Wheaton. Maybe it’s time to call it quits, Lee.
It’s also important to note that while this is indeed the time when male groundhogs begin to stir from hibernation, they’re not leaving their burrows to check out the weather – they’re leaving their burrows to check out the female groundhogs (mating season begins in March).
In 2009, “Staten Island Chuck” bit New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s finger. Last year, the granddaughter of that very same Chuck, Charlotte, was dropped by the new Mayor, Bill de Blasio. Charlotte died a week later, which the Staten Island Zoo blamed on old age (it was later revealed that she had died of internal injuries “consistent with a fall”). This year, in Wisconsin, Jimmy the groundhog bit the ear of his own mayor (he was later granted an official pardon).
This woodchuck uprising isn’t really surprising, seeing as the animals have been characterized as lazy, annoying, aggressive, and even “agonistic.” They grind their teeth. Loudly. They destroy lawns and gardens. They’re basically a ten-year-old version of myself. If the mayor asked a pre-teenage version of myself what the weather was, he’d probably be more surprised if I didn’t snap and bite his ear.