Take Me Outside: The truth behind Groundhog Day
Groundhog Club handler John Griffiths holds Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 126th celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa. Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012. Phil saw his shadow, forecasting six more weeks of winter weather. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Groundhog Club handler Ron Ploucha holds Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 126th celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa. Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012. Phil saw his shadow, forecasting six more weeks of winter weather. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
By the time you read this we’ll know if the groundhog saw its shadow and how much more winter we have to endure – or not! The tradition of the groundhog emerging on Feb. 2 to predict the weather (six more weeks of winter if he sees his shadow, early spring if he doesn’t) may be an excuse for mid-winter revelry in Pennsylvania, where they wake Punxsutawney Phil from his winter slumber. But here in New Hampshire not a single groundhog will see a shadow, regardless of the weather. They are in the thick of unyielding hibernation, deep in their underground burrows.
Groundhogs – or woodchucks, as we call them around here – are one of the few true mammalian hibernators in New England. As plant eaters, their diet of grasses, clover, dandelion greens and other herbaceous plants is nonexistent in the dead of winter. Unable to migrate like some birds and bats, their only choice for survival is to sleep through winter and not eat at all.
To survive without eating for four or five months, the woodchuck’s metabolism slows to a near stop. Its body temperature – normally about 96 degrees – drops to as low as 37. Their breathing rate falls to one breath every six minutes, and their heart rate drops from 100 beats per minute to about 4 to 10 beats per minute. In this state of near death, woodchucks use the extra half inch of fat that they accumulated over the summer and early fall as their fuel to stay alive.
But it certainly doesn’t give them the energy to come out and celebrate the midpoint of winter.
New Hampshire woodchucks will eventually come out of hibernation starting in late March or April, depending on the weather and the amount of fat they have stored.
When they emerge, having lost more than a third of their body weight, they will be hungry. They may feed on bark and twigs until fresh spring greens are lush, but any plant food is welcome after their long fast.
So where did the tradition of Groundhog Day come from if our groundhogs are still underground at this time of year?
There are several theories, but the most common legends came with German immigrants (many of whom settled in Pennsylvania, where the festivities around this holiday are focused).
Feb. 2 is actually an old Christian holiday called Candlemas Day.
This was a time when candles were brought to the church to be blessed as a celebration of light. It is the halfway point between the winter solstice in December, the shortest day of the year, and the spring equinox in March, after which the days begin to be longer than the nights.
A German saying states: “The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and if he finds snow, walks abroad, but if he sees the sun he draws back into his hole.”
Hedgehogs were also thought to predict weather but since there are no badgers or hedgehogs in the eastern United States, the groundhog became the stand-in for this folklore.
Apparently there have been disputes about when spring really starts for a long time. In the British Isles the start of spring was traditionally acknowledged as the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – thus Candlemas Day.
Other traditions point to the spring equinox in March as the first day of spring.
The groundhog (or badger) took on the role of the arbiter, settling the dispute based on the weather.
So the English poem states: “If Candlemas be fair and bright, Winter has another fight. If Candlemas brings cloud and rain, Winter will not come again.”
Here in New Hampshire, watching the changes in day length is a much more reliable predictor of spring than waiting for the hibernating woodchuck to emerge.
The days are now appreciably longer, which anyone who leaves work at 5 p.m. has probably noticed – it’s not dark anymore! From December through March the average change in day length jumps from 0.6 minutes per day to 2.8 minutes per day. That might not seem like much, but every bit of sunlight brings us closer to the growing season, and for the woodchuck, a time to eat again.
So, happy spring!