It's Groundhog Day! Well, it will be on Sunday…

So if you have been following our blogs a few years, you may have seen this one before. Basically, nothing has changed about Groundhogs Day in the past 200+ years, let alone since early 2013. But for all you newcomers – use this to make you friends believe you are a rodent genius.

Normally, our winters are mild but the past few months has pushed us to the precipice of Arctic disaster. This is not really true but groundhogs are alarmists and feel they take the blame for all weather – good or bad. This year, they take the blame for Houston’s cold weather.

Since you most likely need a little background on the winter vs. rodent discussion, I thought it would be a good idea to re-broadcast some Groundhogs Day (Feb. 2nd) information which also happens to be Super Bowl Sunday.  Groundhogs by the way do not like Broncos or Seahawks. One animal steps on their burrows and the other picks them up and drops them in the sea – let me repeat that this may not be true, Groundhogs just think it to be so.

Lets get something straight, “Groundhog” are not the Nostradamus of the rodent world. They can barely remember which drawer they left their pants in, let alone predict the changing of the seasons.

We do not hear much about weather predicting rodents in Houston as we normally only have two seasons: Hot and humid or gonna be hot and humid soon, but folks in the North go nuts over this critter every February. I am ignoring the past few 20 degree days here in January, it is Houston after all and this should not happen for another 10 years. According to folklore, if a groundhog emerging from its burrow on this day fails to see its shadow, it will leave the burrow, signifying that winter will soon end. If on the other hand, the groundhog sees its shadow, the groundhog will supposedly retreat into its burrow, and winter will continue for six more weeks.

Tradition has it that the early German settlers in Pennsylvania thought the groundhog to be a particularly sensitive and intelligent creature. They decided that if the sun shone on Candlemas Day then a wise animal such as the groundhog would see its own shadow and hurry back to its burrow for another six weeks of winter. The origins go back to ancient European weather lore where they relied on a badger or a bear to help them determine the change of the season. Actually Germans used a hedgehog to predict “a second winter”. Who wants to be standing out in a field when a Badger or a Bear wakes up for the season and is hungry?

What is a Groundhog anyway? Also known as Woodchucks or Whistle Pigs, they are actually Marmots of which there are 14 species and at up to 13lbs, the largest member of the Squirrel family. Woodchucks are true hibernators, relying solely on body fat for winter survival. This begins at the first frost of the season and ends in early Spring. Is there a reason they wake up in early February other than to celebrate this tradition (envision groundhogs in party hats ringing in the new year…)? Emergence is determined by the outside daily temperature and an internal circannual clock which governs biological seasonality. Soon after leaving hibernation, sexually mature woodchucks begin the reproductive process. In essence, they are out looking to protect their territories from other males as well as find a mate, or they need to go the bathroom, possibly both. Humans manage to disrupt some of this by parading around their fields trying to figure out where a shadow is.

A few parting points here. On the news every year we see someone in Gobblers Knob, Pennsylvania with a Top Hat from the Groundhog’s Club Inner Circle (yes, this is for real) picking up Punxsutawney Phil to make his prediction. Do not try this at home! I repeat, keep your hands out of hibernating mammal dens. Next – did you know one of the most critically endangered mammals in North America is a Marmot? The Vancouver Island Marmot to be exact – link over to their website for more information and to see one of the cutest rodents on the planet.

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