Personally, I think any groundhog with an urge for self-preservation would not emerge from its burrow on February 2 in Manitoba. The only groundhog actually straying from its burrow on the day named in the furry mammal’s honour either has a death wish or has been driven to a state of abject depression as a result of an ever-present Arctic vortex that has hung around for far too long. It’s just too cold, and it has been too cold for too long. For that matter, all the hard-packed snow blanketing the ground to the depth of several metres, would make it virtually impossible for a lethargic groundhog, abruptly awoken for its hibernation, to tunnel its way to the light of day.
Only to satisfy some whim of folklore would anyone want to have a groundhog exposed to the elements on what will surely be a day of bone-chilling cold. But, of course, any prediction that bases the number of remaining weeks of winter on whether or not a groundhog sees its shadow is more wishful thinking than scientific fact.
According to folklore, if a groundhog emerges from his burrow and sees his shadow and quickly goes back down into his hole in the ground, then there will be six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, then the forecast is for mild weather.
Groundhog Day organizers claim the large rodents’ forecasts are accurate 75 per cent to 90 per cent of the time. However, a Canadian study for 13 cities in the past 30 to 40 years found that the weather patterns predicted on Groundhog Day were only 37 per cent accurate over that time period — a value not significant compared to the 33 per cent that could occur by chance (David Phillips, Groundhog Day, the Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Foundation of Canada).
According to the Stormfax Weather Almanac, Punxsutawney Phil’s weather predictions have been right only 39 per cent of the time.
“The groundhog has shown no talent for predicting the arrival of spring, especially in recent years,” according to the National Climatic Data Center.
Last February 2, two Canadian-based groundhogs didn’t see their shadow and so mild weather was predicted, while the most famous U.S.-based groundhog in Pennsylvania saw his shadow and another six weeks of winter were predicted. Even taking into account regional weather differences, the forecasts were quite contradictory.
Last year on February 2, Winnipeg Willow refused to leave her cage and thus failed to see her shadow, which was deemed to mean that there would be an early spring. The real reason the rodent didn’t leave her enclosure was that the temperature was -25°C, with a -36°C windchill. Who can blame Willow, a groundhog rescued by the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in 2010, for wanting to stay indoors?
On the other hand, the hand-held puppet, Manitoba Merv, did make a tentative appearance from his burrow and saw his shadow, which was said to signify six more weeks of winter. Although closer than Willow, Merv was weeks off — even with the aid of a human guiding his actions — as the cold weather persisted well beyond what was normal weather-wise.
If anyone remembers last winter, the weather was decidedly cold through March and well into April. It was the coldest April in 100 years and a major snowfall occurred toward the end of the month.
Like other days or sayings based on folklore, Groundhog Day has been repackaged for the modern world of commercialism. While observations of nature by old-time pioneers were used to forecast weather — regardless of truth — centres across North America have embraced Groundhog Day in order to stage annual festivals or single-day events designed to draw tourists to spend dollars in local shops and restaurants, as well as attract media attention that promotes their communities.
Across the continent we have Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania, Wiarton Willy in Ontario, Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia, Buckeye Chuck in Ohio, Staten Island Chuck in New York State and Winnipeg Willow in Manitoba. Another Manitoba groundhog, although a hand puppet, not a live animal, is Manitoba Merv at Oak Hammock Marsh.
In the case of New York and Ohio, the “Chuck” in the name is a reference to its other common name — woodchuck, which is found in the rhyme, “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” For the record, the answer is none, as a woodchuck only eats plants such as dandelion greens, clover, plantain and grasses. But the tongue-twister is really a play on the Algonquian language word, wuchak, for the animal. If it could chuck wood, a woodchuck could chuck about 318 kilograms before it begins its hibernation (Cornell University). A groundhog is actually a large ground squirrel of the marmot family with the scientific name, Marmota monax. It is found throughout North America, including Manitoba, and is 40 to 65 centimetres (16 to 26 inches) long and weighs two to four kilograms (four to nine pounds).
Groundhogs hibernate from October to March or into April, but in more temperate areas, they may hibernate as little as three months, which may explain weather predictions that vary quite considerably across North America. They only emerge from hibernation with some remaining body fat to live on until the warmer spring weather produces abundant plants for food
Groundhog Day celebrations spread across North America as a result of the popular 1993 Bill Murray movie of the same name. In Groundhog Day, comedian Murray plays a cynical and selfish TV reporter who goes to Punxsutawney and is doomed to repeat the day over and over again until he becomes a better person. As a result of the movie, in popular culture, Groundhog Day now represents going through the same phenomena over and over again.
Groundhog Day celebrations were brought to the New World by settlers in Pennsylvania, referred to as Pennsylvania Dutch, although the language they spoke was German. Its origin was weather lore from the Old World that used forecasts based on the shadow cast by a badger or bear. In North America, the settlers adapted the weather prognostications to the commonly seen groundhog.
It also bears similarities to the pagan festival of Imbloc, which was celebrated halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox as the seasonal turning point on the Celtic calendar. It was celebrated on February 1.
In folklore, nature has been used as a weather predictor with varying degrees of success. But a groundhog is far from a reliable source for such forecasts. What is true is that a groundhog will emerge from hibernation when warm, spring weather has arrived.
Still, the forecasts can be fun and lift spirits — or dash, if it’s a negative prediction — with the hope of warmer days just around the corner.