Yesterday, February 2, was the day the whole United States celebrated the groundhog. TV cameras were set to watch Punxsutawney Phil come out of his burrow to determine whether or not spring is upon us, or whether we will have six more weeks of winter
It is recorded that about 90 per cent of the time Phil does see his shadow which means spring is only six weeks away.
While the United States, or at least readers of the Punxsutawney Spirit have been watching for the groundhog’s weather predictions since 1887 when Clymer Freas, the newspaper editor, turned it into a ritual event, February 2 has been a day for weather predictions for centuries.
Before it was called Groundhog Day, it was called, and still is called in the Christian liturgical calendar, Candlemas Day. This day, halfway between the shortest day of the year (winter solstice) and the spring equinox (when day and night are equal) used to be the day when all the church candles for the year were blessed.
The English have an old verse, “If Candlemas be fair and bright,
winter has another flight. If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, winter will not come again.”
The Scots have a similar verse, and the Germans watched for the badger’s weather prediction. It was apparently the Germans who brought this custom with them to Pennsylvania when they settled there. No groundhogs in Europe and no badgers in the new world, but we all make do.
The Delaware Indians who had a settlement in Punxsutawney considered the groundhog their ancestral grandfather and revered him I don’t know whether they used him for any weather predictions.
All this groundhog lore has its own fascination and charm – until one realizes we are talking about woodchucks!
The woodchuck (Marmota monax) is the largest member of the squirrel family and reaches a weight of about 14 pounds. It is how he gains all this weight that is of interest to me.
For the most part woodchucks live solitary lives. During the mating period, male and female share a burrow, but when it is time for the chucklets to be born, Dad is sent away to resume the life of a hermit.
Thirty days after conception woodchuck babies are born blind and naked, only four inches long and weighing a bare ounce. After a month, when they weigh 8 ounces, they begin to make forays away the burrow, and make a tasty morsel for many predators from foxes and owls to large snakes. Before long they are weaned and depart to set up their own burrows.
Woodchuck burrows could be considered a marvel. Woodchucks move about 400 pounds of earth to create the average burrow. Each burrow contains a nest, lined with leaves and grass, and a separate latrine. There is the main entrance that is often marked by a pile of dug earth, and at least one escape, but sometimes as many as five.
I don’t see how the woodchuck who took up residence inside my Sunken Garden last summer could have moved 400 pounds of soil. We never found much of a mound of dug earth outside the burrow. In fact, our first warning of his presence was our view of the woodchuck admiring our garden from the lawn.
Last year was a bad year for the vegetable garden. First there was all the rain. Then there was the woodchuck. We found the entrance to the burrow – inside the Sunken Garden, built into the old stone barn foundation that makes the garden – and barely a dozen feet from the vegetable beds.
Woodchucks are herbivores and their diet is said to consist of dandelions, clover and grass. I wouldn’t mind their eating all the dandelions in my lawn, or even the clover in the lawn, which would leave me with very little green. But, I can attest to their liking lettuces and broccoli as well. And beet greens.
I’d be willing to share dandelions and clover, but our woodchuck was not willing to share lettuce, broccoli and beet greens. It takes a lot of vegetables to get a woodchuck up to that weight of 14 pounds.
We tried bombing the woodchuck. As night was falling, we plugged up the one escape we found, threw smoke bombs into the burrow entrance, plugged that with grass clods, and ran. The next day we stood at the door to admire the early morning sun. The woodchuck sat tall on the stone wall – and laughed at us.
We tried shooting the woodchuck. But by the time we got the rifle, loaded it and aimed, the woodchuck had ambled to his burrow with a giggle and disappeared.
This year we will try biological warfare. Remember, woodchucks provide themselves with a separate latrine.
We have a cat who uses a litter box during the winter. She shudders at the thought of setting her aging feet on the cold snow. This spring, early spring, we will empty the litter box into each entrance and let his own fastidious nature evict him.
I do not begrudge Punxsutawney Phil his electrically heated burrow. I do not begrudge him his fame and fans, after all, Punxsutawney is some distance from Heath.
I do begrudge his cousins the run of my garden. The battle is joined. ###
I wrote this in February 2005. I don’t know whether the litterbox strategy would have worked. Or maybe it was just the threat that somehow was made known to the woodchuck, but in any event, he never showed up again.