Thom Smith | Nature Watch: Celebrating the groundhog — and its day

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Tuesday is one of my favorite days. It commemorates the opening of "the aquarium" 20-something years ago in the basement of The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass.

As head of the Children's Department, I had longed for this since installing the first 20-gallon tank in what was then known as The Children's Room, located on the first floor.

And why did we choose Feb. 2, Groundhog Day? It was always an important day, a day of celebration for the children frequenting the nature programs I had conducted since my arrival in 1961. A day we toasted the groundhog with punch, followed with cupcakes and "Pin the Tail on the Groundhog," likely the most fun-filled game since a similar one involving a donkey.

Why the groundhog as an excuse for a party? No idea, other than I thought of it as the only "Feast Day" on the calendar devoted, in North America, to a rodent. An even better question is, why was the furry groundhog chosen to become a famous weather forecaster?

While there isn't a grain of truth in the folk tale surrounding the groundhog or woodchuck, it was accepted as gospel beginning with the arrival of European settlers. And today, among most groundhog enthusiasts, it is considered as precise as other means of weather forecasting that may or may not include super-computer modeling.

For many who left their homes in Europe to find new freedoms in America, the hedgehog, or the badger, was a piece of the past they fondly remembered. As it turned out, the closest animal the settlers of New England could connect the hedgehog or badger to was the woodchuck, a rodent that readily assumed the nickname groundhog. It wasn't a hog, but it did spend much of its time, but not all, on or in the ground.

When the Germans settled Pennsylvania, they readily found a replacement for their badger and, at the time, much of their new home was forested and woodchucks were common enough forest animals. Others likened the hedgehog to it.

Why they were bestowed the distinct skill of forecasting eludes me. The groundhog wasn't chosen because the animal exhibits intelligence; it spends far too much time asleep and in hibernation (nearly three-quarters of its life) to mass much meteorological knowledge.

When late October comes to the Northeast, the woodchuck, plump from near-constant feeding, lies itself down on a bed of grasses at the end of one of its tunnels. It rolls up into a ball with its head between its hind legs. Its breathing practically ceases and its pulse slows. Body temperature drops to an average of just below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike sleep, it requires several hours, even in a warm place to recover.

Depending where the groundhog is geographically, it will either see its shadow or it won't. In these parts, the groundhog in deep hibernation would need to be endowed with super powers to even fight its way up through February's frozen ground to get out into the daylight.

It is strange though, that the regardless of the groundhog's observations, we always get six more weeks of winter in the Berkshires and Shires of Vermont. In that manner, the groundhog is much like its human counterparts, who predict weather and then go on to predict some more, with never an apology or an oops!

Those captive furry forecasters, whether it be Phil from Punxsutawney, Penn., Charlotte from New York City, or Potomac Phil from Washington, D.C., have to put up with some intrusion, but aside from an occasional accident, have it pretty good, safe from predators.

I believe this will be the 130th annual Groundhog Day celebration of Phil's prognosticating skills down in Punxsutawney. He is one lucky Marmota mona, as his kin have a life expectancy of about 10 years.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201


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