Yes, I know. Groundhog Day is not in March. According to the calendar, Groundhog Day falls on February 2nd each year. Initially a European tradition involving such hibernating mammals as hedgehogs and badgers, the custom coincides with the Christian holiday, Candlemas Day, which comes midway between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. You’re probably familiar with the folk story. If the hibernating mammal emerges from its burrow on a cloudy February 2nd, then spring will arrive early. On the other hand, if the designated day is sunny, the furry creature will see its shadow, return to its burrow, and winter weather will torment us for another six weeks. [I have faith that present-day meteorologists use more modern methods to forecast the weather.]
The earliest mention of Groundhog Day in North America was in 1841. The hibernating mammal referenced on this side of the Atlantic has always been the same species. Known variously as Groundhog (because of its fat, waddling appearance in late summer as it gears up for hibernation) or Whistle Pig (for the sharp whistle it gives if suddenly disturbed), its recognized common name — Eastern Woodchuck – has nothing to do with chucking wood. In actuality, the name was derived from the Algonquin term for the animal (“we-jack”), which sounded something like “woodchuck” to early settlers. Nowadays “Punxsutawney Phil” holds the honor of being the most famous woodchuck for the February folk event, although us New Yorkers are familiar with our own rodent stars: “Pothole Pete”, “Staten Island Chuck”, “Malverne Mel”, and “Holtsville Hal”.
Okay, so why am I writing about Groundhog Day in March? Here’s why: groundhogs – a.k.a. Eastern Woodchucks – are one of the very few mammals on Long Island that hibernate. Most mammals on Long Island are active throughout the year, including White-Tailed Deer, Raccoon, Opossum, Red Fox, Muskrat, Eastern Gray Squirrel, Eastern Cottontail, and White-Footed Mouse. Off the top of my head, the only other local hibernator that I can recall is the Eastern Chipmunk.
Here lies the incongruity about celebrating Groundhog Day in February. In nature, groundhogs are still underground hibernating during the month of February. I should know. My family has had the great pleasure of sharing our property with Eastern Woodchucks these past eighteen years (including the curious little fellow looking in our slide door in the photograph). I usually notice when woodchucks emerge from their winter burrows in our backyard. But if I slack off, “Snowball” (our family dog) lets us know about the recent woodchuck activity in loud, energetic fashion.
For most of these years, my first sighting has occurred sometime between March 5th & March 21st. Only on two occasions – in 2004 and 2012 – have I seen woodchucks above ground in February, and both times the sightings were just barely within the month (February 29th for the former, February 28th for the latter). Conversely, on three occasions, my resident woodchucks seemed to have hit the “Snooze” button, because I did not spot the first of the season until March 31st (2009) or April 1st (2005 & ’07). So I hope you see my reasoning for considering March — not February – to be the month for Groundhog Days.
P.S. As of this writing (March 7th), there has been no sign yet of my backyard woodchucks. With warmer temperatures expected over the next half-week, I expect their emergence sometime very soon!