Each year on 2 February, the world eagerly anticipates the appearance of a cute and famous rodent, named Punxsutawney Phil. The day is observed as Groundhog Day in the USA and Canada and watched across world. But why Groundhog Day and what is a Groundhog?
Groundhog Day is believed to have its roots in the ancient Christian tradition of Candlemas (2 February), when clergy would bless and give out candles needed for winter. The candles represented how cold and long the winter would be. Germans, however, went a bit further, in expanding on this concept and then selecting the hedgehog as a way of predicting weather.
As German immigrants arrived in what is now the United States, they brought with them their folklore and traditions, and as at the time there were no hedgehogs in United States – they aren’t native to the USA- so a similar hibernating animal was chosen as an alternative; a groundhog who could predict the spring weather. Thus, the first Groundhog Day was held on February 2, 1887 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
Members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club visit Gobbler’s Knob, Phil’s home, and a park just outside Punxsutawney, for his annual appearance on 2 February each year. If he sees his shadow (denoting that it’s a clear day out), it is believed that the winter will carry on for six more weeks. If, however, he doesn’t, it means we’re due to get an early spring.
The groundhog, also known as a woodchuck or whistle-pig, are among the largest members of the squirrel family, Sciuridae, and belong to the group of large ground squirrels known as marmots. They are a species of rodent found only in North America, from Canada down to the southern States. Groundhogs are great diggers that make large, complex underground burrows. “Phil’s burrow”, to give an example, is a manmade zoo that is climate controlled and light regulated. In terms of stature, they usually weigh between approximately 2.72 and 5.44kg (6-12 pounds). Fully grown groundhogs can be up to 20 inches in length, with the addition of a tail which is about six inches long.
The groundhog diet consists mainly of plants, vegetables, fruits, and other greens, such as grasses. According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle, Phil enjoys a varied veg and fruit diet of kale, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, and even bananas.
Groundhogs are mostly solitary animals, only seeking out other groundhogs to mate. As a species, they work to protect each other and communicate using high-pitched shrills to warn each other of any impending threats. They are known to be one the few species of true hibernators. This means they go into a dormant state—in which their body temperature and heart rate fall dramatically—from late autumn until late winter or early spring. After losing up to half their weight during hibernation, groundhogs usually appear from their winter burrows in February—hence the chosen date for Phil’s appearance is 2 February.
Phil is looked after throughout the year by the aforementioned group called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle, who also plan the annual ceremony which is widely reported across the world.