By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Happy Groundhog Day! Most of us have been hearing about this annual event since we were kids, but relatively few people know when or why it got started, or how a chubby little rodent is able to predict the change of seasons.
Groundhog Day derives from the Pennsylvania Dutch superstition that if a groundhog emerges from his burrow on February 2nd and sees his shadow due to clear weather, he’ll return to his den and winter will last for another six weeks. If February 2nd happens to be a cloudy day and the groundhog doesn’t see his shadow, spring will arrive early.1
History of Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day was first observed on February 2, 1887 at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, PA. The date of February 2 falls about halfway between the winter solstice and the March/vernal equinox, when days and nights are approximately equal length.2 The day has its roots in an ancient Christian tradition called Candlemas Day, during which clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be.3
In the German tradition, “The Badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and when he finds snow walks aboard; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.”4 Once they arrived in America, German immigrants in Pennsylvania continued the tradition, but traded badgers for groundhogs (also called woodchucks) because groundhogs are plentiful in PA.
In 1887, there was a group of groundhog hunters called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, and one of the members of the group was the editor of the local newspaper. It was this newspaper editor who declared that Phil, the Punxsutawney groundhog, was America’s only true weather-forecasting groundhog.5
Today, tens of thousands of people visit Gobbler’s Knob every February 2nd to attend a three-day celebration hosted by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The highlight of the three-day event is, of course, Phil’s weather prediction. Depending on who you ask, historically Phil’s forecasts have been accurate only 28 to 50 percent of the time.
Phil’s permanent residence is the Punxsutawney Library and he only makes an appearance at Gobbler’s Knob to emerge from his climate-controlled burrow for the Groundhog Day celebration.
Groundhogs: A Loathsome Species?
Like other burrowing rodents, groundhogs can be very destructive to both infrastructure and crops. They tend to be universally despised by gardeners and farmers. However, animals that burrow and graze through crops serve a purpose in the ecosystem.
For example, in areas prone to flooding, rainwater fills groundhog burrows, helping to carry water into the soil and preserving vital nutrients needed to grow crops. The burrows also help to store carbon and aerate the soil with oxygen. According to Off The Grid News:
“We spend a great deal of time and effort to create compost, but these animals carry with them into their burrows essential fungal spores, plant matter, feces and other organic matter deep into the earth. This natural and subterranean composting adds value to plant roots and doesn’t need human intervention to accumulate.
Allowing such animals to thrive in limited numbers is almost like enlisting free labor for the effectual conditioning of the land for farming use.”6
Another benefit of groundhogs is insect control. Ground dwelling animals keep insects and smaller rodent populations under control, which is a boon to crop growers. Chemical insecticides and organic control methods combined can’t match the level of pest control provided by burrowing animals. Finally, groundhogs often move into and improve burrows dug by other animals. This helps to improve the biodiversity of the land.
10 Facts About Groundhogs
They are also known as woodchucks and whistlers or whistle-pigs
They are rodents belonging to a group of ground squirrels called marmots, and are the largest species in the squirrel family
Adult groundhogs average 20 inches in length not including their 6- to 7-inch tail, weigh between 6 and 12 pounds, and live up to 6 years in the wild and 9 to 14 years in captivity
They are omnivores but primarily eat grass, vegetables and fruit
They can climb trees; they can also swim
Groundhogs are excellent burrowers and can move over 700 pounds of dirt to make their underground hideouts, which are so complex they even have bathrooms
They use their burrows for shelter, hibernating and sleeping, as a love nest and nursery
In colder climates, groundhogs enter hibernation in October and emerge in March or April (which means if Phil lived in the wild in Pennsylvania rather than in his climate-controlled burrow, he’d be in deep hibernation and unavailable for comment on February 2nd!)
Female groundhogs produce one litter a year of two to six blind, hairless and helpless babies
Here’s a tiny groundhog who was rescued after his mom was hit by a car while carrying him across the road: