Conserve Wildlife Blog

Celebrating the Holiday with a Common New Jersey Creature

February 1st, 2021

by Mary Emich, Assistant Biologist

Punxsutawney Phil held aloft at the 2018 Groundhog Day celebration. Photo by Chris Flook.

Groundhog Day is the annual tradition in which a groundhog is used as a predictor for the length of the winter. Each year on February 2nd, the groundhog crawls out of his burrow in search for his shadow. If the shadow is not seen, then it is believed that there will be an early spring. On the other hand, if the groundhog finds his shadow, he will hide away and there will be six more long weeks of winter.

The groundhog or woodchuck as it is also known, Marmota monax, is one of the largest members of the squirrel family and can be found across North America. Here in New Jersey, the groundhog may be our most frequently sighted mammal after the squirrel. Driving on many New Jersey roads can bring regular glimpses of groundhogs standing up and scanning for danger on the grassy shoulders of roads.

One common location where groundhogs can be found is under a shed in your own backyard. While their entrance hole is what you notice, what you cannot not see is the intricate underground burrows they build. The burrow is dug with different tunnels that can be up to 30 feet long, and are used as dens for raising kits, hibernating, and even as bathrooms.

A groundhog stands in a field in Minnesota. Photo by April King © 2004.

You may be wondering how this rodent was chosen for the specific job forecasting weather. Initially this holiday began in Germany using badgers. They employed the badgers to predict when spring would arrive, enabling them to determine when to plant their crops. When German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania the yearly tradition continued. Groundhogs were replaced for badgers, and the first Groundhog Day was held in Punxsutawney in the 1800s. Groundhogs are true hibernators, meaning their body temperature and heart rate decrease during hibernation. Groundhog Day is celebrated in early February when male groundhogs wake up early from hibernation to begin the mating season. In 1887, Punxsutawney Phil became the most famous groundhog in America and remains so to this day. Other cities have adopted their own official groundhogs like Staten Island Chuck in New York’s Staten Island Zoo and Jimmy in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Phil has projected an early spring correct only 40% of the time. While this success rate may not be particularly impressive, people from all over wake up bright early eager to tune into the celebration and see the groundhog’s predication. The event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania has become the most attended groundhog celebration.

For this 135th straight year of groundhog stardom, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club organized a livestream that begins at 6:30am, so people can enjoy the celebration from home during the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, this year we can relate to the hibernating groundhogs more than ever. So many of us hope that Phil will not see his shadow, spring will be just around the corner, and we can all come out of our hibernation to enjoy the warm weather.

You can watch the Groundhog Day festivities live at 6am by clicking here.

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