Ground Hog Day

I bet some of you are ready to choke that fat little rodent in Pennsylvania for predicting an extended winter.

I cannot understand though, how he managed to see his shadow in the midst of an ongoing snowstorm. Fake news, perhaps? After this past week’s blizzard, the last thing we want is to be reminded of that it’s not nearly over yet.

Most of this week’s column was written by my friend and former Extension agent colleague, Paul Hetzler, who now lives in Quebec and whose excellent essays and articles can be found at

The notion that sunshine on the second of February indicates a late spring began in ancient Europe. That date marks the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox.

In the Celtic world, Imbolc was dedicated to the goddess Brigid (Brigit), traditional patroness of healing, poetry, hearth and home, agriculture and fertility. She was also a fierce warrior who killed adversaries like a champ.

As Christianity spread, Imbolc was supplanted by Candelmas Day, but both traditions reference the “sunny equals more winter, and cloudy means spring” theme.

Mostly because Europe lacked groundhogs, Groundhog Day was invented in the New World, first popping up among Pennsylvania Germans (who were steeped in the Candelmas tradition) in the early to mid-1800s.

Though Punxsutawney Phil was the original prognosticating marmot, others like Wiarton Willie in Wiarton, Ontario; Jimmy the Groundhog in Sun Prairie, WI; and General Beauregard Lee of Lilburn, GA followed.

The children’s rhyme “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood” suggests that woodchucks feed on trees, but this is not the case. Like the words skunk, squash, hickory, moose, and many other terms, woodchuck (wojak) is of Native American origin, Algonquin in this case. I don’t know its literal translation, but I suspect it means “fat fur-ball that can inhale your garden faster than you can say Punxsutawney Phil,” or something like that.

Much as I respect the origin of “woodchuck,” I’m in favor of using one of its other names, groundhog, which is more descriptive. Not only do these rotund herbivores reside underground, they’re such gluttons that I’m pretty sure even swine call them hogs. Tellingly, another moniker is “whistle-pig,” referring both to groundhogs’ warning call and their voracious appetites. I have never actually heard a groundhog “whistle” and I wonder if any of you readers have? One of their most annoying habits is to take a single bite out of a just ripened tomato and then move on to the next one to do the same. They should at least finish the one they tasted first before ruining the rest of the crop!

Native to most of North America from southern Alaska to Georgia, groundhogs are a type of rodent called a marmot. They’re related to other marmots and to ground squirrels out west, but in the northeast they have no close kin. Given what a marmot can eat, that’s a mercy.

They may be gluttons, but they’re not lazy. Groundhogs dig extensive burrows up to 5’ deep and 40’ long, each having two to five entrances. Supposedly, the average groundhog moves 35 cubic feet of soil excavating its burrow, which is upwards of 3,000 pounds. (I’d like to know who measures these things.)

Mature groundhogs in wilderness areas typically measure 15-25” long and weigh 5-9 lbs. Given access to lush gardens or tasty alfalfa, though, they can reach 30” long and weigh as much as 30 lbs. Now that’s a ground hog. Needless to say, their habit of vacuuming up fields and gardens has given them a bad name in some circles.

True hibernators, groundhogs usually den up in October, their winter body temperature dropping to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and their heart slowing to a few beats per minute. Groundhogs might emerge in February in Pennsylvania, but around here they rarely wake up before late March or early April.

We may not know how much wood a woodchuck can chuck, but we do know how much ground a groundhog can hog: a lot, especially if beans and peas are growing on said ground. I say we pull those researchers off the perennial Woodchuck-Chucking Quantification Project and have them find a way to ensure that Groundhog Day is overcast, so we can get an early dismissal from winter.

Happy Groundhog Day! What better observance for this day than one which reminds us it’s no longer January and we should consider renegotiating our New Year’s resolutions.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at

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