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Groundhog

Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

WILDLIFE AT THE TYLERS

Beverly C. Tyler snapped this photo of a groundhog at his home in Setauket on Aug. 1. He writes, ‘A visitor to our backyard who did not see his shadow.’ In addition to this cutie, the Tylers have had many wildlife visitors this year including  quail, fox, turkey, red-tailed hawks, snakes and deer

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By Ernestine Franco

Why does a generally rational society drag a sleeping groundhog out of his hibernation burrow to learn how much more winter is to come? Don’t we have calendars? Don’t we have memories of what has happened in previous years? Don’t we have the Weather Channel?  Let’s consider how all this happened.

Sound Beach Susie enjoying a carrot. Photo by Ernestine Franco

According to Charles Panati’s “Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things,” the groundhog (also called a woodchuck or whistle pig) is not really interested in how long winter is. Looking for a mate or a good meal are the actual reasons that determine a groundhog’s behavior when it emerges in winter from months of hibernation.

Quite simply, if on awakening a groundhog wants some company or is famished, he will stay aboveground and search for a mate and a meal. If, on the other hand, these appetites are still dulled from his winter slumber, the groundhog will return to the burrow for a six-week doze. Weather has nothing to do with it.

Folklore about the animal’s shadow originated with 16th-century German farmers. However, the German legend did not rely on a groundhog. Rather, the farmers relied on a badger. (Happy Badger Day?) The switch from badger to groundhog did not result from mistaken identity. German immigrants who settled in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in the 19th century found that the area had no badgers. It did, however, have hordes of groundhogs, which the immigrants conveniently fitted to their folklore.

Weather did play one key role in the legend. At Punxsutawney’s latitude, a groundhog emerges from its hibernating burrow in February, again looking for company or food. Had the immigrants settled a few states south, where it’s warmer, they would have found the groundhog waking and coming aboveground in January. In the upper Great Lakes region, the cold delays its appearance until March. Thus, it was the latitude where the German immigrants settled that set Groundhog Day as Feb. 2.

German folklore dictated that if the day was sunny and the groundhog (badger) was frightened back into hibernation by its shadow, then farmers should refrain from planting crops, since there would be another six weeks of winter weather. Scientific studies have squashed that lore. The groundhog’s accuracy in forecasting the onset of spring, observed over a 60-year period, is a disappointing 28 percent —   although, in fairness to the groundhog, the estimate is no worse than that of a modern weather forecast.

So Groundhog Day has become part of American culture. The official groundhog that gets yanked out of its burrow is Punxsutawney Phil, named for the town where the German immigrants settled. Thousands of people and the national media cover poor Phil’s treatment. And let us not forget there is the film, “Goundhog Day,” which is enjoyed by many people year after year after year.

Many other states celebrate their own groundhog. In New York we have Staten Island Chuck, Dunkirk Dave, Malverne Mel and Holtsville Hal, whose sleep is interrupted at the Town of Brookhaven’s Wildlife and Ecology Center in Holtsville.

For me, I recently had my own groundhog, whom I called Sound Beach Susie (shown in the accompanying  photo eating a carrot), take up residence in my backyard. But I did not bother her in February. I waited until late spring when she brought her five babies out in the open. I had very interesting encounters with them when she allowed me to feed them all for a few weeks. They particularly liked carrots, broccoli and romaine lettuce. They did not like celery, asparagus or zucchini.

So Happy Groundhog Day, no matter how or when you celebrate it!

Holtsville Hal, his handler Greg Drossel and Master of Ceremonies Wayne Carrington make their way onstage to cheers and applause on Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

To the delight of about 100 people in attendance on Tuesday, it was announced that famed Brookhaven groundhog Holtsville Hal did not see his shadow, indicating spring would come early this year.

Excited Holtsville Hal fans collected streamers as a keepsake from Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski
Excited Holtsville Hal fans collected streamers as a keepsake from Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

Hal made his yearly Groundhog Day appearance at Brookhaven Town’s Holtsville Wildlife and Ecology center at about 7:30 a.m., before a crowd with fresh memories of being walloped with more than 2 feet of snow in a recent blizzard.

Tradition says that if Hal — or, as he’s known in the Town of Brookhaven as a throwback to the classic Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” the Great Prognosticator of Prognosticators — sees his shadow when he wakes from hibernation on Groundhog Day, the community is in for six more weeks of winter.

“As I stood by my burrow and looked to the ground, there was no shadow for me to be found,” Brookhaven Town Highway Superintendent Dan Losquadro (R) read from a large scroll as Hal was presented to the mass of onlookers. “So kids and their families, put away your sleds and snow blowers.” There were raucous cheers.

Holtsville Hal is presented to a group of young onlookers on Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski
Holtsville Hal is presented to a group of young onlookers on Groundhog Day. Photo by Alex Petroski

Holtsville Hal was handled by Greg Drossel as he posed for photos with Master of Ceremonies Wayne Carrington, Councilmen Neil Foley (R) and Dan Panico (R) and Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D), members of the Holtsville Fire Department and many others. He even posed for a selfie with one young admirer.

Last year, Hal also predicted an early spring. This year he might be right, if only just for Tuesday, as those who woke up early to attend the event were treated to a mild, sunny morning by the time the groundhog made his much-anticipated appearance.

With the viewers in good spirits, Carrington reminded the crowd to donate whatever they could to the ecology center to support its programs.

This version corrects the spelling of Councilwoman Valerie Cartright’s name.

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A groundhog makes a weather forecast. File photo

groundhog-wSmithtown has its own groundhog, and his big annual prediction is approaching fast.

Sweetbriar Sam will make an appearance on Sunday, Jan. 31, at 1 p.m. at Smithtown’s Sweetbriar Nature Center at 62 Eckernkamp Dr., Smithtown, and choose between another six weeks of winter or an early spring. The event, which runs through 3 p.m., will also feature a scavenger hunt to learn facts about groundhogs, playing with shadows and events with other animal hibernators and weather predictors.

The event is open to all, and admission is $10 per child and $5 for adults and Scouts. For more information, residents can call 631-979-6344 or visit www.sweetbriarnc.org.