February 6, 2014 | Volume 119, Issue No. 6

Birds know when spring is coming

Going Nature's Way

Pity the poor groundhog. All the hopes of the winter weary are pinned on this lowly rodent to tell them winter will end sooner than later. The groundhog, alternatively known as a woodchuck, is in the rodent/ground squirrel family and has been saddled with this onerous task since 1887 when a group of hunters and questionable gourmands from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, had a hunt and feast based on the aforementioned rodent. The local newspaper editor thought it so entertaining that he named the group of men, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. There was already a tradition among the German settlers in the state that tied animals to the prediction of winter’s length, and that led to the official designation of February 2 as Groundhog Day.

As residents of the northern hemisphere, we desperately seek ways to distract ourselves from the long, dark nights and cold and snowy conditions that keep us housebound for months. This is not a new phenomenon, however. February 2 is the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. What was once the Celtic pagan festival of spring known as Imbolc, evolved with the spread of Christianity to become the feast of Candlemas, commemorating the Christ child’s presentation at the temple in Jerusalem. It was also a time when candles would be blessed and placed in the windows to beat back the mid-winter darkness. Some Europeans decided that a sunny Candlemas foretold 40 more days of winter weather. The Germans embellished this belief by deciding that this was only true if badgers (which do not hibernate) and other animals saw their shadows on this day.

Any self-preserving groundhog would refuse to come out of hibernation just to check to see whether the sun was shining. Like many other ground squirrels, groundhogs go into a deep and long sleep, sometimes as long as nine months, given the right conditions.

Groundhogs/woodchucks belong to the largest grouping of mammals on Earth — the order Rodentia. The name comes from the Latin rodere, which means to gnaw. Each rodent has a single pair of upper and lower incisors, which can grasp, hold, pierce and cut not only their food, but less desirable things like household wiring. Ever growing, these incisors must be put to constant use or they will grow right through the roof of their mouths.

Woodchucks, like their relatives the marmots and prairie dogs, will dig burrows or holes in which to live, but they spend a great deal of their time on the surface looking for food. The woodchuck is especially proficient in digging burrows and can disappear within a minute. Tunnels may spread 45 feet or more and to depths of three to six feet.

Like their prairie dog relatives, they give alarm calls when predators are spotted and will run for shelter, but if no hole is available, they are able to climb a tree for escape. Woodchucks increased in number as our forests were cut down and were replaced by fields and pasture land. This has put them in direct conflict with agrarian people, especially those of us with vegetable gardens. They spend the summer months fattening up on plants and fruits and slowing down so that, by October, they are ready to retire to their grass-lined burrows and sleep the long winter away — much as some of wish we could do.

Come March and April, depending on the temperatures, the woodchuck rouses from his sleep and pokes its head above ground, but won’t venture forth until there is something green worth eating. Males can weigh as much as 13 pounds when they go into hibernation, but emerge having lost nearly half that; another enviable result of hibernation — dieting without discomfort.

Lest we be fooled, the National Climatic Data Center tells us, based on statistics, that Punxsutawney Phil and his kind have “no predictive skill.” Better, I say to listen to the chickadees and cardinals singing their spring songs and the woodpeckers hammering out their territorial drumbeats. They know spring is coming; they’re just not going to go out a limb and tell us exactly when.

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