Omens and portents from a rodent

Landschlacht, Switzerland: 2 February 2016

I always smile when I think of this day for I recall my visits to two towns that are famous in the minds of Canadians: Punxsutawney and Wiarton.

On this day in February, beneath the town hall in Punxsutawney and in a special house across from Bluewater Park in Wiarton, the traveller will encounter a pampered and protected rodent.

This is a rodent.

It has big teeth, a strong body, short limbs and a long tail.

It eats seeds and plants, lives in communities and is quite promiscuous.

It gnaws its food, digs holes and will defend itself if attacked.

Rodents are found almost everywhere in the world.

This rodent pictured above is a groundhog, also known as a woodchuck, and is native to Canada and the United States.

(“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck

if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could

if a woodchuck could chuck wood!”)

They will raid your farm and garden and eat your vegetables.

Their burrows destroy ponds and undermine building foundations.

Their dens also attract other animals, like foxes and skunks, which feed upon mice and insects that destroy farm crops.

The groundhog´s incessant digging does aid in soil improvement as rich subsoil gets intermixed with topsoil to improve the land´s fertility.

It is a game animal and can be eaten, though I have never met anyone who has.

A report in 1833 by the New Hampshire Legislative Woodchuck Committee illustrates the attitude of some people towards this animal:

“The woodchuck, despite its deformities both of mind and body, possess some of the amenities of a higher civilization.

It cleans its face after the manner of the squirrels, and licks its fur after the manner of a cat.

Your committee is too wise, however, to be deceived by this purely superficial observation of better habits.

Contemporaneous with the Ark, the woodchuck has not made any material progress in social science.

It is now too late to reform the wayward sinner.

The average age of the woodchuck is too long to please your committee.

The woodchuck is not only a nuisance, but also a bore.

It burrows beneath the soil, and then chuckles to see a mowing machine, man and all, slump into one of these holes and disappear.”

Groundhogs may be raised in captivity, but their aggressive nature can pose problems.

Doug Schwartz, a zookeeper and groundhog trainer at the Staten Island Zoo:

“They’re known for their aggression, so you’re starting from a hard place.

The natural impulse is to kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out.

You have to work to produce the sweet and cuddly.”

(My wife says similiar things about me!)

Groundhogs are used in medical research on hepatitis B induced liver cancer.

A percentage of the woodchuck population is infected with the woodchuck hepatitis virus (WHV), similar to human hepatitis B virus.

Humans do not receive hepatitis from woodchucks with WHV, but the virus and its effects on the liver make the woodchuck the best available animal for the study of viral hepatitis in humans.

The only other animal model for hepatitis B virus studies is the chimpanzee, an endangered species.

Robert Frost‘s poem “A Drumlin Woodchuck” uses the imagery of a groundhog dug in to a small ridge as a metaphor for his emotional reticence:

A Drumlin Woodchuck

One thing has a shelving bank,
Another a rotting plank,
To give it cozier skies
And make up for its lack of size.

My own strategic retreat
Is where two rocks almost meet,
And still more secure and snug,
A two-door burrow I dug.

With those in mind at my back
I can sit forth exposed to attack
As one who shrewdly pretends
That he and the world are friends.

All we who prefer to live
Have a little whistle we give.
And flash, at the least alarm
We dive down under the farm.

We allow some time for guile
And don’t come out for a while
Either to eat or drink.
We take occasion to think.

And if after the hunt goes past
And the double-barrelled blast
(Like war and pestilence
And the loss of common sense),

If I can with confidence say
That still for another day,
Or even another year,
I will be there for you, my dear,

It will be because, though small
As measured against the All,
I have been so instinctively thorough
About my crevice and burrow.

Groundhog Day is a traditional holiday celebrated on February 2.

According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early.

If it is sunny, the groundhog will see its shadow and retreat back into its den and winter will persist for six more weeks.

Modern customs of the holiday involve early morning celebrations to watch the groundhog emerging from its burrow.

The largest Groundhog Day celebration is held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, with Punxsutawney Phil.

Groundhog Day, already a widely recognized and popular tradition, received widespread attention as a result of the 1993 film Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day (movie poster).jpg

But there are things about this holiday that Americans rarely realise:

It is not an American invention.

The origins of Groundhog Day lie in medieval Europe, where the day was known as Candlemas Day, a Christian festival named for the custom of lighting candles on that day.

There were sayings that carried the observations of the time of year in general.

In Scotland, conventional wisdom said:

“If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,

There’ll be twa [two] winters in the year.”

In England, the saying was somewhat more elaborate:

“If Candlemas be fair and bright,

Come, Winter, have another flight.

If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,

Go Winter, and come not again.”

The Pennsylvania Dutch, or Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, are German-speaking immigrants from southwestern Germany and Switzerland.

The celebration began as a Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch custom in southeastern and central Pennsylvania in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It has its origins in ancient European weather lore, in which a badger is the prognosticator, as opposed to a groundhog.


Groundhog Day also bears similarities to the Pagan festival of Imbolc (later St. Brigid´s Day)(the seasonal turning point of the Celtic calendar), which is celebrated on February 2 and also involves weather prognostication.

“The badger will come from the hole
On the brown Day of Bríde,
Though there should be three feet of snow
On the flat surface of the ground.”

Punsutawney is not the only place in North America that celebrates Groundhog Day with its own groundhog prognosticator.

In the US, there is Staten Island Chuck, New Orleans has T-Boy the Nutria (more river rat than groundhog), and in Clark County, Nevada, a similar tradition is observed with a desert tortoise named Mojave Max.

In Canada, there is the albino groundhog, Wiarton Willie:

Wiarton Willie is not alone in his role as weather forecaster.

He is joined by groundhogs across the country, including Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia), Brandon Bob (Manitoba) and Balzac Billy (Alberta).

And as posted in Facebook:

And exactly how accurate a prognosticator are these critters?

And shortly after dawn on Tuesday, Punxsutawney Phil failed to see his shadow, meaning he predicts an early spring and not the six more weeks of winter that many dread.

Punxsutawney Phil usually predicts a longer winter.

Since 1887, the groundhog has seen his shadow 102 times and not seen it just 18 times.

According to USA Today, which has tracked his predictions since 1988, the groundhog has been right 13 times and wrong 15 times, for an accuracy rate of 46%.

So if you can’t trust Phil, who can you trust?

Certainly not Raleigh, N.C.’s groundhog, Sir Walter Wally, whose prediction has been wrong seven out of the past ten years.

You could go with Ohio´s official weather-predicting whistle pig, Buckeye Chuck, who says we’re in for six more weeks of winter.

(According to his official Facebook page, the Ohio pig’s predictions have been right 75% of the time.)

Even better: Staten Island Chuck, whose accuracy rate(80%) crushes those of Wally and Phil.

On Tuesday, the New York groundhog (real name: Charles G. Hogg) also predicted an early spring.

Two of Canada’s famed four-legged forecasters have made clashing weather predictions.

Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam is calling for an early spring, while Ontario’s Wiarton Willie expects six more weeks of winter.

This year’s Canadian Groundhog Day festivities have already been marred by the death of the westerly prognosticator, Winnipeg Willow.

Winnipeg Willow

Groundhog Day celebrations have been cancelled in Manitoba out of respect for Willow, who died last Friday at the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre.

I wonder:

Did Willow know when it was going to be “her time”?

It is an odd and silly tradition and not a terribly reliable one, but it helps one cope with winter by offering the promise of spring.

Who am I to argue with that?

People have been known to believe in more powerful ideas with even less evidence.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Yahoo News, The Canadian Encyclopedia, CBC)


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