Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 1, 2019

Happy Whistlepig Day!

We journalists live for the exciting story - the one that practically writes itself and the reader can’t put down because it is so interesting.

But, alas, not every day has a tale that just begs to be told. So unless the weather is going to be awful around Thanksgiving, we will have to feast on last-year’s stories about how many people will be on the highways or how to cook a turkey. If no late-winter snow is predicted as Easter nears, television will again be filled with images of kids looking for eggs on the White House lawn.

Over the years, I’ve tried to avoid these “filler” stories - the kind that when they come on TV, husband Art says, “OK, no news today!” So when I realized tomorrow is Groundhog Day, I thought, “Run, do not walk!”

But then curiosity took hold. Where did we ever come up with this crazy notion that if the sun is shining and the groundhog sees its shadow, it will get scared and run back into its home and we will have six more weeks of winter? I definitely needed to do some research on this buck-toothed critter and his special day.

The earliest documented mention of Groundhog Day is a Feb. 2, 1840 entry in the diary of Welshman James Morris of Morgantown, Pennsylvania, according Don Yoder in his 2003 book, “Groundhog Day.” Morris was apparently commenting on the tradition of his German neighbors.

The precise origin of this special day is unclear, but appears to be another of those confabulations between Christian customs and more mundane local traditions. Feb. 2 is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It is also 40 days after Christmas Day - the date of which is also the consequence of a similar mixing. Early in Christendom, Feb. 2 was the day the Christmas celebration was to end. It was called Candlemas and, in some places, the clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter. In others, believers were to light all the candles in their homes as an encouragement for winter to leave.

Germans expanded on this concept by selecting a badger, hedgehog or other animal as a meteorologist. In the U.S., German settlers in Pennsylvania switched to groundhogs.

As Feb. 2, 1887 approached, the editor of the Punxsutawney (Pennsylvania) Spirit newspaper was apparently experiencing one of those slow-news days I mentioned earlier. Punxsutawney is a Native-American word for a place inundated with sand flies or mosquitoes - something hardly anyone would want to celebrate. So the editor declared a local groundhog named Phil, who resided at Gobbler’s Knob, a site in the southeastern part of the town, to be America’s only true weather-forecasting animal.

The village, which is located about 75 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, has about 6,000 inhabitants today and, as best as I could determine, its main business is getting people to come to see this famous place and, of course, spend some money.

Since the 1993 Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day” was such a hit, upwards of 40,000 show up each year on the day, despite the fact that the movie was largely shot in Illinois.

Other places, not to be outdone, have their own weather-predicting rodents, including Birmingham Bill, Staten Island Chuck and Shubenacadie Sam in Canada.

So if the place is not all that special, what about the critter? The groundhog is in the family Sciuridae, which includes squirrels, chipmunks, prairie dogs and marmots. Groundhogs are the East Coast version of the marmot, which is found in the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada.

But as with most animals, the groundhog also has other names. Some of these are woodchuck, chuck, groundpig, whistlepig, whistler, thickwood badger and many more. The name “woodchuck” doesn’t come from these creatures chucking any wood, but is believed to have come from an Algonquian name for the animal - wuchak.

Groundhogs usually eat vegetables and fruits and will occasionally eat snails, insects and baby birds. They can climb trees and swim. They whistle when they’re frightened or looking for a mate - hence the name “whistlepig.”

They go into hibernation in the late fall. In February, they begin to stir, not to check on the weather or to make a prediction, but for a much more mundane reason - to mate. Then, being sensible creatures, they return to their dens until March when the weather will be more hospitable.

In most regards, they are spectacularly unspectacular creatures. But they are excellent burrowers, using their nests for sleeping, rearing young and hibernating. According to the National Wildlife Federation, on average, an animal will remove about 700 pounds of soil to make a burrow. Each den has one to three entrances, has several rooms and extends for 25 to 35 feet.

Groundhogs have been used in biomedical research involving liver cancer, metabolic function, obesity, energy balance and the endocrine system. Exploring hibernation patterns of the animals may lead to benefits for humans, including lowering of the heart rate in complicated surgeries.

So there you have it. Happy Whistlepig Day ... and I will try to avoid writing about it again!

How much wood
Could a woodchuck chuck,
If a woodchuck
Could chuck wood?

Childhood rhyme now "whistling" through my mind!

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Other columns from 2019 may be found at: 2019 Index.
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