Fun Facts About Why We Celebrate Groundhog Day
And why we ask a groundhog, anyway
Why in the world do we ask a groundhog about the weather every Feb. 2? What makes them better prognosticators than squirrels, or wooly worms, or frogs? Here are some fun facts about Groundhog Day history, North Carolina groundhogs and other animals that predict the weather.
- Groundhog Day springs from a Pennsylvania-German tradition in the 18th and 19th centuries, when people used the hibernation patterns of bears and badgers to predict the end of winter.
- Using animals to predict the weather dates back even further. For example, during the Celtic pagan ritual of Imbolc, snakes and badgers were used for weather predictions.
- Groundhog Day was officially adopted in the U.S. in 1887 in — you guessed it — Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, when Clymer H. Freas, editor of the local newspaper, Punxsutawney Spirit, began promoting the town’s groundhog as the official “Groundhog Day meteorologist.”
- Groundhog Day is held on Feb. 2 because it’s about halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Feb. 2 is also a Christian holiday known as Candlemas. British tradition held that winter wasn't over yet if Candlemas was sunny enough to cast shadows, but a cloudy day meant spring had sprung. According to an old British saying, “If Candlemas Day be bright and clear, there'll be two winters in the year.”
- North Carolina’s prognosticating groundhogs are managed by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and include Sir Walter Wally at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Grady at Chimney Rock State Park, and Sunshine and Stormy at the North Carolina Zoo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Other North Carolina groundhogs are Nibbles at the WNC Nature Center in Asheville and Queen Charlotte in Charlotte.
- Sir Walter Wally has been prognosticating in Raleigh since 1998. Although this would be an impossibly long lifespan for a normal groundhog (even in captivity groundhogs generally only live 9-14 years), according to museum staff, Wally keeps his youthful vigor by drinking magic elixirs consisting of crushed acorns from only the oldest oak trees in Raleigh.
- Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks or whistle-pigs. They build impressive burrows, anywhere from 8 to 66 feet long, with multiple chambers and exits. They are true hibernators, going into a dormant state from late fall until late winter or early spring, waking up only when it’s time to mate.
- Many other animals are also traditionally seen as weather forecasters. Well-known in North Carolina is the Wooly Bear, or Wooly Worm, caterpillar, whose stripes are said to predict how harsh the coming winter will be. People have also looked to squirrels, frogs, cows, birds, ladybugs and other animals to predict weather changes.
- Even on Groundhog Day, some U.S. states don’t look to groundhogs for their predictions. In Alaska, Feb. 2 is Marmot Day. Clark County, Nevada, celebrates the day with a desert tortoise named Mojave Max. Louisiana boasts a trio of groundhog alternatives: T-Boy the nutria in New Orleans; Pierre C. Shadeaux, a coypu (or nutria) in New Iberia; and Claude the Cajun Crawfish, who makes his prediction Feb. 1 in Shreveport, just in time for Mardi Gras.
Discover when and where our local weather prognosticators — Sir Walter Wally of Raleigh and Snerd of Garner — will be making their predictions, as well as educational opportunities here.
SIR WALTER WALLY PHOTO COURTESY OF N.C. MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCES
SOURCE: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.