Groundhog Day Perspectives

A Montana bald eagle looking for lunch (see story below)

If Candlemas will be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas be cloud and rain
Winter will be gone and not come again.
(Scottish poem)

Last summer, at the annual conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of America at Rochester MN we had an outing at a Boy Scout camp. The camp is built on and around an old farm and while walking to another event I spotted a furry animal in a patch of grass. A woodchuck!

Woodchuck are also called groundhogs and today, February 2, is Groundhog Day. Early this morning in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania and a surprisingly large number of other communities, there were special observances of Groundhog Day. According to ancient traditions going back to pre-Christian Europe, the weather on February 2 predicts how much longer winter will hang around.

Romans believed the weather on the first few days of February would predict future weather, though they looked to hedgehogs as the predictor. Celtic people had a festival of Imbolc, held on February 1, with similar weather traditions.

The early Christian church established February 2 as a religious holiday observing two events of which one was the ritual of purification for Mary. The other was the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth.

Candlemas, literally, the Mass of Candles, observing the presentation of Jesus as a “Light to lighten the gentiles (one of many versions),” was a day when people traditionally brought a year’s supply of candles to church to be blessed.

Candlemas is midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox and the early Christian church merged many older traditions into church holidays, so some of the Roman and Celtic beliefs about predicting weather continued.

In the U.S., Pennsylvania Dutch, or more accurately, German settlers imported the Candlemas tradition and gave groundhogs the role hedgehogs played in Europe.

The groundhog, or woodchuck, is a ground squirrel and part of a group of rodents called marmots. It is common in eastern and central states. Groundhogs typically weigh between 4 and 9 pounds, though in areas with few predators and rich feed are known to get over 30 pounds. Their main diet is grasses, or alfalfa when available, but they also eat bugs, grasshoppers or other small animals.

Groundhogs dig burrows for shelter, usually with multiple entrances. They may also dig a separate winter burrow for hibernation. In much of their range groundhogs hibernate from October until March or April, so in reality if Punxatawney Phil were a wild woodchuck he’d normally be sound asleep on February 2.

An intriguing fact about woodchucks is if they are injected with a special strain of Hepatitis B, they are at 100 percent risk for developing liver cancer, thus making them valuable for research on Hepatitis B and liver cancer.

We don’t have woodchucks here in Montana, though there are any number of Woodchuck Trails and similar places. Two other marmots call Montana home, however. The yellow-bellied marmot ranges across most of the Rocky Mountain states and is often called a rock chuck to distinguish it from its eastern cousin. The hoary marmot, which gets its name from its long, gray guard hairs, generally lives high in the mountains, above tree line.

Last summer, after getting home from Minnesota, I spotted a road-killed yellow-bellied marmot near the upper Big Hole River. A bald eagle was perching on a rocky cliff overlooking the highway, making some plaintive noises. I took the hint and picked up the marmot and threw it over the guardrail so the eagle could eat it safely (I know—what a mensch).

A week later, while touring Glacier National Park, we watched several hoary marmots moving around the Logan Pass Visitor Center, optimistically looking for edible goodies between the building and the deep snowdrifts.

That’s a personal record; seeing all three of these marmots in just a couple weeks. Still, I’ll bet none of them can predict Montana’s weather. In any event, if you wake them up on February 2 to ask, you might not like their answer.