Did The Groundhog See His Shadow?

Feb 3, 2020

“Did the groundhog see his shadow?” If you didn’t ask this question yourself, odds are someone you know, or heard, asked it yesterday or today. In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about groundhog day.

Last week, an animal rights group well known for its outlandish stunts, took a rather novel approach to addressing the captivity of this country’s best known groundhog. In a letter addressed to the rodent himself, they recommended that he retire and turn his job over to an artificial intelligence or AI replicant that used technologically advanced equipment to forecast the end of the winter.

Yesterday was groundhog’s day, but I probably didn’t need to tell you that. Even though no gifts are exchanged, no special family gatherings hosted, no holiday travel arrangements made, I guarantee you that this day will get attention from people all around you. People will be asking, or answering, the question about whether the groundhog saw his shadow. The answer can be complicated because there are multiple groundhogs that observe and report their weather on this day. Why, even here in Wisconsin, we get an official proclamation from Sun Prairie, which has proclaimed itself the groundhog capital of the world for over fifty years.

The letter I spoke of though, was not sent to Sun Prairie, for of all the groundhogs that may have achieved household name status, none likely achieved higher fame than Phil. Actually, his full name is "Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather-Prophet Extraordinary." This name was deemed and assigned by the "Punxsutawney Groundhog Club" in 1887, the same year they declared Punxsutawney to be the weather capital of the world.

We have the Germans to thanks for groundhog day, originally. It was their tradition of Candlemas, a religious observance that landed on February 2nd, a date also celebrated by Pagans because it is exactly half between the winter solstice (shortest day of the year) and the spring equinox (the first day of meteorological spring). The Germans decided to add in a weather predicting animal, because why not, and in Europe a hedgehog was a natural choice. When early German immigrants came to our young country, many of them settled in Pennsylvania. There may be some who think that was the Dutch, but that is because in the pioneer times, the Germans (who in their native tongue say Deutch) were misunderstood to say Dutch. These German settlers sought out a way to bring their Candlemas celebration to their new home, and without any hedgehogs, they had to find some other burrowing rodent, and hence we all now observe groundhog day.

So Candlemas Day folklore for century has claimed, “If the day is bright and clear, there’ll be two winters in the year.” Punxsutawney Phil has prognosticated 104 shadow years since he first got into the business in 1887, and only 18 short winter predictions. There were nine years where there was apparently no forecast made or no record kept…maybe it was too close to tell. Phil’s track record is not very good, however. He has been wrong more than 50% of the time.

I can’t think of a worse way to predict the length of winter than to ask if a groundhog saw its shadow. Why, here in Wisconsin, the groundhog, a true hibernator, is still sound asleep in his den and unlikely to emerge until it’s body says the fat reserves are gone and its time to go up top and look for some fresh green forage. I suppose it is possible they might also awake because the soil and are beginning to warm, or moisture from melting snow and frost are entering the den. But this festive observance didn’t start because German farmers were desperate to know when to start planting crops or how much longer they would need to feed cattle. They likely started this as a celebration that the worst of winter was over and the arrival of spring is inevitable. Sure, the groundhog might be an odd or questionable choice for a “mascot” of this celebration, but why not embrace it for what it is? Watch the people dressed in high finery hoist a baffled groundhog into the air to the cheers of the crowd and exchange pleasantries with strangers about it for days and weeks to come.