February 2nd is Groundhog Day! For over 175 years, this day has marked the celebration of a tradition in the United States and Canada in which a groundhog’s behavior is believed to predict the end of winter. According to the legend, if this very special groundhog emerges from its burrow on February 2nd and sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If it does not see its shadow, then spring will arrive early.

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Groundhog Groundhog (close up)

 

This peculiar tradition originates from the Pennsylvania Dutch community, made up of German immigrants and their descendants. The original animal used in German lore was a badger, and similar traditions used a bear or a fox, depending on the region. After migrating to America, the groundhog became the popular choice. Today, the most well-known Groundhog Day celebration takes place in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania.

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Badger Black Bear Red Fox

 

There, a groundhog known as Punxatawney Phil is the seasonal predictor, but he’s far from the only groundhog with that hallowed duty. In New York City, Staten Island Chuck is known as the weather-forecasting woodchuck (another name for groundhog). Canadian celebrations also occur, featuring Wiarton Willie of Ontario, and Schubenacadie Sam from Nova Scotia. The groundhog with the most accuracy in its predictions is General Beauregard Lee of Georgia in the southern United States. To date, his correct prediction rate is 94%.

Despite the popular tradition, groundhogs don’t really have any special powers that allow them to predict the coming and going of seasons. They are simply members of the squirrel family (Sciuridae), and specifically a sub group of squirrels known as marmots. The groundhog is the largest squirrel within its range, and can grow to over two feet long and weigh nearly ten pounds. In areas where predators are scarce and food is plentiful, they can weigh as much as 30 pounds!

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Gray Squirrel Flying Squirrel

 

Groundhogs spend much of their time in burrows that they dig in the ground. They use their burrows as a sort of “home base”, where they sleep and hide from danger. They also hibernate in them. Like bears, groundhogs will enter a state of extended sleep during the winter months, slowing their metabolism and heart rate to conserve energy. They will gain body weight before hibernating, storing fat that they will use as nourishment during their hibernation period.

Though Groundhog Day is February 2nd, in the wild these ground squirrels are known to hibernate until April…and even in the case of the famous groundhogs, they have been known to sleep right through the big event.

 

Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: Groundhog Day mascots across the United States and Canada often use alliteration in their names. In addition to Punxatawney Phil, other names include Balzac Billy, Chattanooga Chuck, Dover Doug, Dunkirk Dave, Patty Pagoda, Lawrenceville Lucy, Malverne Mel and Winnipeg Wyn.

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