Posts Tagged ‘groundhog’

yellow-bellied marmot

A yellow-bellied marmot can’t predict the weather. Its cousin, the groundhog, can’t either.

I have not written anything about this in a while, but those of you who live outside of North America need to know something:

Every Candlemas, local news stations across the Anglo-American world will be covering a bizarre ritual. At the local zoo or wildlife center, some people with super-thick gloves will be annoying the resident marmot this morning. In my part of the world, it will be French Creek Freddie, a groundhog, who will be roused from his deep hibernation. He will be taken out into the broad daylight.

And somehow, it will be determined if he saw his shadow or not, and if he sees his shadow, then we’re in for six more weeks of winter.

The big ritual happens at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, and it is supposedly based upon an German custom of annoying a badger or hedgehog on Candlemas for the same purpose. Neither species is found in Pennsylvania, although wandering American badgers have occasionally turned up in Western New York and even West Virginia.

So they went with the local marmot species as a stand-in. The one in Punxsutawney is called Punxsutawney Phil. There is already a livestream set up for his prediction this morning.

In Montana, a yellow-bellied marmot named Bitterroot Bill. He’s not exactly the ground of Pennsylvania, but if the groundhog of Pennsylvania is a stand-in for a badger or hedgehog, shouldn’t a yellow-bellied marmot do just as well?

At least Van Island Violet, an endangered Vancouver marmot, will be left alone to sleep through her hibernation. Canadians, at least on the West Coast, are nicer to their local marmot than most of us are.

Indeed, this is about the only day that groundhogs get any truck with people in my area. Groundhogs are agricultural pests, and during the hot days of summer, they are frequently used as target practice by those hunters with itchy trigger fingers or those who are starting to doubt their marksmanship skills.

But if you ever see the Candlemas rodents when they are roused from their winter naps, they are quite grouchy. That’s why the handlers have to wear such thick gloves. I’ve never hibernated, but I can imagine that being roused from such a state is pretty traumatic.

I’ve always thought this is a bizarre custom for several reasons:

One is that I can’t imagine the groundhog is looking for its shadow when it’s hauled out into the light. I don’t even know that groundhogs even know what shadows are. The main thing these animals seem to be caring about is why they can’t be put back to bed.

The second is that, um, if an animal sees its shadow, that means the sun is out. If the sun is out, then that will melt the snow, and I would think that the sun shining would be a sign that winter is on its way out.

I suppose I’m thinking this stuff out too much.  It is, after all, just a regional folk custom that went viral long ago.

Most people don’t even know that today is Candlemas, because it’s not an Anglo-Protestant holiday at all.

In North America, it is Marmot Day.

The national news will let us know what ol’ Phil saw. Of course, he won’t be interviewed. There will just a proclamation read, and the news will report on his prediction. The local news affiliates across the country will report on the local marmots, and we will go on our merry way.

And then the real meteorologists will produce their forecasts. People will follow those a lot more closely than the rodent predictions.

And we’ll go back to our lives. The marmots will go back to sleep. When the grounhogs arise in spring, the guns will go off as soon as the find the vegetable patch.

But for one day, they are feted, even if they are too grouchy and dazed to realize it.


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Bobcat catches groundhog


I cannot believe these people reacted to the bobcat in this fashion.

I think we’re doomed.

People can’t even appreciate even unambiguously natural predation.

Maybe this is why the quality of nature programming has dipped significantly.

When I was a kid, I used to watch those films were big cats killed things.

And they were wicked awesome.

I guess predators are no longer politically correct, even if they have been a major force in both regulating prey species and driving evolutionary selection pressures.

Bobcats have to eat, too!

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Warning: Do not watch if you are a vegan or into animal rights or think that all dog predatory behavior is just icky.


This is a rockchuck or yellow-bellied marmot, a close relative of the groundhog or woodchuck that lives in my neck of the woods. And yes, I’ve seen a golden retriever kill a groundhog. Granted, the dog had no retrieving instinct, so she was little more than a fancy cur or shepherd dog.

This is the kind of dog we call a “varmint dog.” Varmint is a word that is synonymous with “vermin”– both words  have the same etymology.

Can you explain to me how this dog quickly killing this rockchuck  is worse than if a coyote did exactly the same thing?

This is no different than a terrier ratting. The scale of predator to prey is about the same, and the dog is an expert with its jaws and killing motor pattern.

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From WHDH-TV (includes video).

A groundhog comes running at a dog and a family, and they think it’s there to play?


Groundhogs make a high pitched sound whenever they are agitated, so it would make sense that this rabid one would also use that vocalization.

My useless show-type golden once got into an altercation with a groundhog. It wasnot a rabid one, just a stupid slow one that allowed a stupid, slow dog to catch it.  It was quite hilarious to watch a groundhog beat up a golden retriever.

And then the field-line dog sailed in and killed it in five seconds.


In my part of the world, groundhogs are about the only animal that digs extensive burrows.

A few years ago, the groundhog population dropped. This was, of course, blamed on the coyotes.

If any animal population drops, the coyote is to blame.

There may have been some truth to it, because most of these groundhogs grew up in a world without much predation, except for dogs, which are notoriously bad at predation. A dog will have a hard time catching a groundhog if all it does is run it into into a burrow and then spends the next 45 minutes barking at the hole.

Coyotes use a different technique. A few smarter dogs also use it.

The coyote or dog just waits outside the entrance to the burrow and flattens its body against the ground. It allows the groundhog to come out. It lets it forage until it reaches a point where it cannot run back to the hole before the dog or coyote can overtake it. When it reaches that point, the dog or coyote pounces.

That technique may have been a bit of problem for our coyote-naive groundhogs.

However, that wasn’t the main worry.

The main worry was that dens would no longer be dug. Foxes and den-nesting raccoons would have no place to hide or raise their young. Cottontail rabbits would have no place to seek refuge during the coldest days of the winter. All of these animals rely upon the dens that groundhogs dig. Foxes can dig their own den, but the soil is so rocky in West Virginia that they’d rather just renovate a groundhog burrow.

Of course, natural selection has favored more coyote-wise groundhogs, and their numbers are stable.

The burrows are being dug.

And all is fine.

But I hope none of them get rabies.

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Today is the day of the groundhog.

That’s what I call Marmota monax.

Most Americans call this animal a woodchuck.

Other names for it are the “land-beaver” (LOL) and the whistle-pig (because they do whistle as an alarm call).

It is the most common marmot species in North America. Its range extends from Alaska to Alabama, and it is the only species of marmot in the eastern US and Canada.

Tomorrow is their day, because in the US and Canada, the hibernating groundhogs will be woken from their slumber. These animals are true hibernators, and although they do wake up during February, even captive woodchucks aren’t moving around this early in the month.

The animals are not being woken up to see if they are still alive after months of dormancy, which actually would make some sense.

No, these animals are called upon to do something far more important.

You see, we might have sophisticate technology and even more sophisticated models for making weather forecasts, but we need something else.

After all, they still sell Farmer’s Almanacs in this country.

And when it comes to predicting when the winter weather will subside, what better expert to consult than a giant hibernating squirrel?

So tomorrow morning, captive groundhogs throughout the US and Canada will be woken up from their winter slumber. Their handlers will be wearing thick gloves or gauntlets when they wake up the woodchuck weathermen. The reason is simple. These creatures hate being taken out of hibernation, and they have sharp teeth.

If the groundhog sees its shadow, then there will be six more weeks of winter. If the groundhog does not, then there will be an early spring. I’ve always wondered how they knew what the groundhog saw,  because I don’t think a drowsy groundhog is going to see much.

This holiday happens every February 2. Its roots are in the German custom of using badgers or hedgehogs to predict the length of the winter at Candlemas. Large numbers of Germans settled in Pennsylvania during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  They discovered that their new homes had no hedgehogs and no badgers (North American badgers don’t live that far east.)

So the Germans began using groundhogs. Most of these Germans were not from the parts of the German-speaking world that had Alpine marmots, so no one thought to connect this North American species and the one found in Europe.

The most famous of these groundhog festivals is the one held in the hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. The famous groundhog that will be making his weather prognostication at that well-known festival is Punxsutawney Phil.  And this year,  Phil will send his prediction via text message!

And he won’t be the only groundhog making these predictions. There are scores of captive groundhogs that will be called upon to predict when winter will end.

And yes, there is also a film about Groundhog Day that is worth watching:


I just hope that tomorrow doesn’t start repeating itself.

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