The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 2, 2014

Forget about the Super Bowl, it’s Groundhog Day

By Scott Shalaway
For The Register-Herald

CAMERON — Early this morning on Groundhog Day, handlers at Gobbler’s Knob, Pa., removed Punxsutawney Phil from his den. If he saw his shadow, we’ll have six more weeks of winter. No shadow, and we get an early spring. At least that’s the myth, the legend, the old wives’ tale.

Of course, it’s all hogwash. Rousting a groundhog from hibernation to see its shadow on Feb. 2 is no better a predictor of winter weather than checking woolly bears’ color bands in the fall.

But it’s all harmless fun. Just ask the folks in Punxsutawney, Pa. Groundhog Day is a huge event there; thousands of visitors attend and 43 corporate sponsors help make it happen. And it’s the one day of the year groundhogs get just a bit of respect.

And Pennsylvania isn’t the only place that really gets into Groundhog Day. Even states where groundhogs don’t occur have come up with ways to get in on the action. In Ohio, for example, Buckeye Chuck assumes Phil’s role. In Michigan, it’s Woodchuck Woody. Staten Island Chuck takes center stage in New York. And in West Virginia, it’s French Creek Freddie, named for his home at the State Wildlife Center. Maine has W. Chuck Berry. And the Tennessee Aquarium is home to Chattanooga Chuck.

Because groundhogs, which are large ground squirrels, occur only in the eastern U.S., some western states have come up with creative ways to be part of the holiday. Sarah Palin decreed Feb. 2 as “Marmot Day” while she was governor of Alaska. Several species of marmots live in western states. Colorado relies on the wisdom of Flatiron Freddie, a yellow-bellied marmot. And Oklahoma, where groundhogs do occur, tries to cheat the system by using sibling grizzly bears, Will and Wiley, at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

The silliness of all this is that groundhogs at mid-latitudes rarely venture from their burrows on Feb. 2. They are still sound asleep deep in their burrows. After they enter their winter dens in the fall, groundhogs plug the entrance to the burrow and curl into a snuggly ball. Their body temperature drops about 57 degrees to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and their pulse drops from more than 100 beats per minute to just four beats per minute. Clearly, few wild groundhogs see the light of day on Feb. 2.

So how did the tradition of Groundhog Day come to be? It actually began centuries ago with a European church holiday, Candlemas.

A verse from an old English song set the stage:

 

“If Candlemas be fair and bright; Come Winter, have another flight;

“If Candlemas brings clouds and rain; Go Winter, and come not again.”

 

In that short verse and others like it from Europe lay the roots of Groundhog Day. Candlemas dates back to early Christianity in Europe, celebrating Christ as the “light of the world.” On Feb. 2, the clergy blessed and distributed candles for the people to display in their windows. Early Europeans watched to see if hedgehogs saw their shadows to predict the remainder of winter.

In the absence of hedgehogs in North America, early Americans decided groundhogs would make a reasonable substitute. German settlers brought with them the tradition of Candlemas. The belief was that at the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox, if the weather was fair, the second half of winter would be cold and cruel. If the skies were cloudy, an early spring would follow.

The first record of using groundhogs to predict winter weather dates to 1842 in Berks County, Pa. For more information about Groundhog Day, visit www.groundhog.org.        

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Snowy Owl update: In last week’s column I described Project SNOWstorm, research to learn as much as possible about snowy owls during this impressive irruption year. Scientists are catching owls and equipping them with transmitters to track their movements.

“Philly,” trapped at Philadelphia International Airport on Jan. 9, was relocated 40 miles west to Lancaster County farmland. It returned to the airport just two days later. Sadly, Philly was hit and killed by a UPS cargo plane at daybreak on Wednesday. The plane was not damaged.

----Dr. Scott Shalaway can be heard 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) or online at http://tunein.com/radio/WVLY-1370-s23555/. Visit Scott’s web site www.drshalawaycom or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.