Can those critters really predict the length of a season?
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
Feb. 2 was Groundhog Day, and I thought this was a fine subject for a wildlife article this time of year. Most of us probably are most familiar with Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvania groundhog who steals the spotlight for one day a year. This is a tradition that German immigrants brought over from their homeland, and it likely has its true origins in ancient European traditions and ceremonies. It was probably linked to the emergence of an animal from its winter den signaling spring’s arrival. Although Phil somehow steals the national spotlight every year, here in Wisconsin we have our own weather-rodent, Jimmy the groundhog. Supporters and fans in Sun Prairie, north of Madison, have proclaimed it “the groundhog capital of the world.” Jimmy was uncooperative in 2015, you may recall, and bit the mayor’s ear when he leaned in to hear the rodent’s weather forecast. That Jimmy is gone, but there is a new Jimmy who did his forecasting from a cage.
There are numerous other examples of beliefs or traditions telling us what we can expect the weather to do. “Red at night, sailor’s delight,” referring to using the color of sunset or sunrise to determine the likelihood of storms has been used since biblical times. Perhaps you have heard that spring comes after snow falls three times on a robin’s back. You may remember I wrote about indicators that a severe winter was approaching, such as the thickness of bands on a woolly bear caterpillar, unusually active frogs in August, or muskrat burrows high on the stream banks. Dad said the bigger the mice make their nests the worse the winter will be. When I worked in the Prairie Pothole region, the Native Americans there had they called an “Amber Day” once every three months. They would note the weather at morning, midday, and afternoon and use it to indicate what kind of weather they could expect across the next three months. These traditions and many more were efforts by our ancestors to link nature observation and weather—what we call phenology today.
Is there anything to these predictions? Some more than others, but I think most indicators have an overall accuracy of about 50 percent, which is a coin toss. From a biological standpoint, the emergence of the groundhog is an interesting one. The groundhog is a large rodent, related to the marmots that live in mountainous areas. Groundhogs are one of the few creatures we have that truly hibernates. Bears hibernate in a state of torpor, meaning although they slow or completely stop feeding, they do not completely “conk out.” They can move around, give birth, groom, leave and return to the den—they are actually pretty active. Groundhogs shut down almost completely, heart almost stopped, breathing barely detectable, living off their fat in their hibernacula excavated below the frost line.
Depending on the area, they then emerge in March or April. Maybe it’s due to how quickly they burn their fat, maybe it is the frost leaving the ground, or a combination of factors. So, if the weather signals groundhogs to awake, we might take a cue from them that grass will emerge soon. No sense waking up before there is something to eat, after all. Spring’s arrival timing would then be more about when it emerges, not whether it sees its shadow or not. Still, if nothing else, it gives us something to talk about – the weather is one of the most popular conversation starters we use, after all.
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.