This Week’s Creature Feature: How the Groundhog Got the Job

On February 2, Punxsutawney Phil saw his/no shadow, answering the question of whether our weather will be wintry. Yes, for about six more weeks.

But he begged the real question: Why let a groundhog decide?

European folklore tells of sacred animals like bears, badgers and hedgehogs predicting the weather. Arriving in North America in the 19th century, Germans brought this tradition with them, giving the job to the animal that most resembled those back home: the groundhog.

Other elements of the tradition come from rituals associated with winter’s cross-quarter day. Half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, February 2 has deep roots as a festival of fire, light and purification. Candlemas, a Christian holiday, celebrates the blessing of candles. Proverbs advise that if Candlemas is a sunny day, a second winter is on its way.

While we debate the history of February 2, groundhogs get their rest.

“Generally they are hibernating,” says Peter Jayne of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “But they do start to come up about now to begin their breeding season.”

Jayne says he’ll be surprised if any are up tomorrow due to the cold weather.

“When they wake up depends on how soon the ground warms,” Jayne says. “But it is an individual thing, so some can wake up earlier.”

Hibernating as long as from October to April or as little as three months depending on the climate, the furry burrow-digging rodent, also known as a woodchuck, has a 37 percent success rate of predicting the weather.

Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil isn’t the only one with a prophecy.

Georgia has General Beauregard Lee. Alabama’s Birmingham Zoo has Smith Lake Jake. Staten Island Chuck lives in New York’s Staten Island Zoo. Sir Walter Wally is at home in North Carolina’s Museum of Natural Sciences. 

Canada has Shubenacadie Sam in Nova Scotia, while Wiarton Willie, a white groundhog, foretells the winter weather in Ottawa.

Not to be left out, Texas chose an armadillo to forecast on Armadillo Day.

Whatever the theory, whatever the animal, only time will tell what the weather will be.