Furry forecasters have history of precise weather prediction

One day each year, for a couple of hours at least, Phil of Punxsutawney, Pa., creates headlines all over this nation. Under the ground, a certain lowly, hibernating creature - a large football-shaped body covered with ugly rough hair - wakes, shakes and noses his way out of his winter resting place to see if the sun is shining enough to cast a shadow. This ugly, burrowing creature with a bushy tail is called a "groundhog," a "ground squirrel" or a "woodchuck." It has no resemblance to a hog, it’s not like a squirrel - except its tail - and it doesn’t "chuck" wood.

In school we knew the animal as a woodchuck. We enjoyed this tongue-twister: "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" The word "chuck" means "to tweak someone under the chin" or "to toss, to pitch or to discard." Chuck is also the part of a beef that’s around the cow’s head and shoulders. Phil, this popular woodchuck, feeds not on wood but on grass, clover and other vegetation. He packs great stores of those into his burrow before retiring for several months - but rarely eats as much as he packs away.

Phil emerges at 10 a.m. on the second day of every February. Our forefathers, and my own father, bet on the accuracy of weather-forecasting by any groundhog. Gradually interest was centered on the talent of one particular 12-pound marmot in Pennsylvania. His prediction was thought to determine what would happen for the next six weeks, weather-wise.

I’ll bet my old friend John Estes could have told me why the forecast is by a certain woodchuck in Punxsutawney.

Who named this 10- to 12-pound, bulbous, burrowing marmot "Phil"? Why was his prediction made on Feb. 2 at 10 o’clock in the morning? Dad said, "Who’s stupid enough to think that the same groundhog has been correctly predicting the weather ahead for 60-some years?"

John Estes lived close to the land and knew animals firsthand. In spring, groundhogs ventured out early - perhaps for evacuation purposes, as with honey bees and other creatures that stay inactive all winter.

John could spot dry pasture grass moving a little and, to fool a young guest, he’d say, "I have this trained groundhog. Would you like to see him?"

Then he’d give a loud clap of his hands and shout, "Hey you down there. Sit up!"

The groundhog - any groundhog - would pop up in sight, sit on its hind parts and look all around. Then John shouted, "Now, get back in that hole," and the "trained" animal scampered back underground, where there were six or eight naked, blind babies that he or she needed to protect.

Enemies of John Estes’ groundhogs are coyotes, which are small prairie wolves, other wolves, dogs, foxes, bears and human beings. Perhaps the American Indians knew how to interpret the groundhog’s forecast for the next six weeks. John Estes could have told me!

This year, an overcast sky opened up for long enough to make the groundhog happy, but that was on a country road in Boone County, and I’ve no idea what happened at 10 a.m. in Punxsutawney, except that Phil’s picture was on TV one day early, being taken out of a wire cage. Do you suppose that this whole thing is a lot of hullabaloo and is of no significance at all?

Click here to return to the index
Copyright © 1994-2010 Sue Gerard. All Rights Reserved. No text or images on this website may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the author, except small quotations to be used in reviews.