Groundhog Day

My groundhog day will arrive when the raider of our strawberry patch sits in the cross-hairs of my sights. Last year the little ‘hog’ grazed it to the ground, leaves and all.

A neighbor over the fence told me he often sees our groundhog padding across his yard towards our back forty. I imagined the critter was a little larger than a guinea-pig with a snub nose, but my friend stretched out his arms.

“Whoa, that’s a giant!” I guessed it was a fisherman’s tale, but apparently not. After a

snow tracks

Groundhog, rabbit and deer tracks in the snow

heavy snowfall Tuesday night I found his broad tracks mingling with those from rabbits and deer. Evidently, our raider was on the rampage again, even while his northern relatives are still curled up in hibernation to give gardeners and farmers a break—all the critters except one.

There is a groundhog that has made the little Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney famous. To other nations, it is a mystery why a country with a long history of hunting and extirpating animals devotes a whole day to Groundhog, which falls after Martin Luther King Day and before Presidents’ Day. It could only happen in a nation of animal lovers.

Phil boasts more titles than any European royalty, but his celebrity status rests on a reputation for being the only true weather forecasting groundhog. On Groundhog Day, he emerges from his burrow to be presented on stage at Gobbler’s Knob in front of his

followers and TV cameras. There he informs his Inner Circle of grim-faced men in black frock coats and top hats about the weather for the next six weeks. If Phil sees his shadow winter weather will continue; if he doesn’t see it we can expect an early spring. It’s a question that everyone is interested in after bitter weather from the polar vortex.

The tradition was brought to the USA by immigrant farmers from Germany where badgers were the seers. According to an old proverb: The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and, if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.

Predicting the last day of frost and higher ground temperatures has always been important for spring planting, and farmers often looked to nature for wisdom—when animals came out of hibernation or the thickness of their fur coats or the crop of winter nuts and berries. You can see why people thought these were signs, but not how they work. But perhaps when anticyclones are ‘parked’ for days or even weeks over the continent in winter, which creates calm, clear and cold weather, people associated the sunshine and shadows cast by them with continuing cold. At least that’s my theory for Punxsutawney Phil.

CandlemasGroundhog Day coincides with Candlemas mid-way between the winter solstice and spring equinox. The day was probably marked in pagan calendars, later becoming a Christian Feast Day when candles were blessed in churches like a festival of lights and when it was time to predict the change of season.

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright

Winter will have another fight.

If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,

Winter won’t come again.

Phil’s reputation suffers when his predictions turn out wrong, but how can one groundhog predict the weather across all the climatic zones of a continent? Minneapolis and Miami are totally different. I decided to check his record over the past five years at the closest major weather station to his burrow—Pittsburgh PA. As a Pittsburgh Steelers fan I think he’d approve my choice.

The average temperatures for February and March in 2009-11 and 2013 were all rather cold, although he only saw his shadow in two of the four years. And after he saw it again in 2012 the following two months were 10°F warmer than normal. Looking further back, he seems to have been right 50% of the time, which is what you’d expect for a binary choice by a statistically astute groundhog.Groundhog forecast

Like traditional weathermen and almanacs, Phil’s reputation is based on a long history of record-keeping. He announced his first forecast in the long winter of 1887-88, and is undisputed as the oldest groundhog in the world. Most of his kind survive no longer than 6-8 years in the wild (hopefully less in my yard), but his longevity is owing to a secret elixir that he sips at his summer picnic to keep him young. When you notice his coat color has changed from grey and grisly to brown and sleek you know that he has been rejuvenated again, which is more times than Doctor Who of the British TV sci-fi series.

Shortly after dawn this morning, Phil’s big day arrived. He faced followers who had temporarily forgotten about the Superbowl. Soon enough we were told that he had seen his shadow, so there are six more weeks of winter ahead. Quite how he managed to see his shadow on a rainy morning with cloud cover down to 400 feet mystifies me. Oh well, it’s just a bit of fun!

Next Post: Lovely Lilah

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
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