16 Groundhog Facts You Need to Know for Groundhog Day
You don't want to miss these fascinating facts about Groundhog Day and the furry critters that we celebrate every February.
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First things first: Groundhogs are lousy weather predictors
As the myth of Groundhog Day goes, if a groundhog sees its shadow on February 2, winter will last another six weeks. And while Punxsutawney Phil’s handlers maintain 100 percent accuracy in his seasonal predictions, the numbers tell a different story. Stormfax calculated that Phil has seen a 39 percent forecasting success rate since 1887. According to a Canadian groundhog study, this is just 2 percent higher than the average groundhog success rate of 37 percent (the most accurate hog-nosticators in the study resided in Yellowknife, Canada, and had a 50 percent accuracy rate). In other words, a gambling man would be better off flipping a coin.
Groundhogs have a different secret talent
What do groundhogs have in common with sleazy construction workers? They both whistle at potential mates. It’s because of this odd adaptation that groundhogs are also known as “whistle-pigs” (and lecherous day laborers known simply as “pigs”). Here are the most memorable Groundhog Day mishaps.
They have other nicknames too
Groundhogs are members of a group of large ground squirrels called marmots, but they’re also called land beavers and woodchucks. Surprisingly, the latter moniker has nothing to do with wood, Scientific American explains. It’s believed to be taken from the Algonquian name for the same animal: “wuchak.” Check out these other “facts” about animals you probably have all wrong.
Groundhogs are vegetarians
The Groundhog Diet consists mainly of grass, herbs, and plants like dandelions, daisies, and goldenrods. They also have an eye for human crops, like carrots and corn, which puts them on farmers’ most-wanted lists. And yes, they do occasionally eat tree bark, as we all hoped woodchucks would. Learn about famous groundhogs that aren’t Punxsutawney Phil.
They call North America home
Most groundhogs live in the eastern and central United States, although you can find them in Canada and even Alaska. They tend to settle down on the edge of a forest or woodland, near an open field, where they’ll likely construct their underground burrows. But you may also spot them climbing trees.
They make great architects
Groundhogs build pretty impressive homes. Their underground burrows include multiple “rooms” with different purposes, including a sleeping chamber, a nursery chamber, and a waste chamber (what we would call a bathroom). The entire burrow can stretch anywhere from eight to 66 feet long. Check out these other animals that have real-life superpowers.
Sleeping is their favorite hobby
Few animals are as dedicated to hibernating as groundhogs. Known as “true hibernators,” they snooze from late fall to late winter or early spring, which can mean up to as many as six months of deep sleep, depending on their climate. During this time, their body temperatures can drop below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit), and their heart rates slow from 80 beats per minute to just five. Here’s why Bill Murray hated the movie Groundhog Day.
They’re surprisingly romantic
Despite their intense hibernation habits, there’s evidence that male groundhogs wake up early (after about three months) to start looking for potential mates. “Typically, there’s a male that has a territory that includes several female burrows. And there’s some competition for that territory,” Stam Zervanos, retired professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, told National Geographic. “They try to defend that territory, and they go from burrow to burrow to find out if that female is still there.” Groundhogs start visiting females as early as February and then go back to sleep until mating season starts in March. Putting relationships before sleep? That’s what we call dedication. Check out these monogamous animals that mate for life.
It wasn’t always called Groundhog Day
If you can’t find yourself a groundhog to ogle this February 2, simply step outside and recite this old English rhyme:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, Winter, have another flight;
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go, Winter, and come not again.
Modern Groundhog Day evolved from Europe’s Candlemas Day, a celebration of light both literal (the days are growing longer) and religious (Candelmas invokes Jesus’s first visit to the Temple in Jerusalem). It’s an old knight’s tale that the weather on Candlemas will be the exact opposite of the weather six weeks hence—yet somehow, centuries later, a few lines of scientifically suspect verse remain the basis of an annual holiday. Check out these other silly holidays that everyone should celebrate.
Groundhogs weren’t always the holiday’s honored animal
About halfway between the winter and spring solstices, Candlemas has long been a day of seasonal speculation, though the designated animal weatherman varies from culture to culture. Records from Penn State University Libraries show that medieval cults favored bears, holding parties by their dens, gussied up in grizzly costumes and waiting for a bear to lumber out from hibernation and check the weather. English and German Catholics celebrated a similar tradition with sacred badgers. When badgers proved hard to come by for Pennsylvania’s German settlers in the early 1800s, colonists adapted their old-country tradition to an abundant New World animal: the groundhog. Learn about how accurate Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions actually are.
You’re not supposed to eat the groundhog … anymore
On February 2, 1886, The Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper declared the first official Groundhog Day celebration, hosted by a group of town elders dubbed the Groundhog Club. For this club, marmots were more than furry meteorologists; they were a delicacy. In addition to its Groundhog Day ceremony, the club hosted a summertime groundhog hunt and picnic. On the menu: cooked groundhog meat (described by locals as “a cross between pork and chicken”) and something called “groundhog punch,” a combination of vodka, milk, eggs, orange juice, “and other ingredients.” For a time, marmot meat was the regional cuisine. That began to change in 1887, when a groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil was born. To hear his handlers tell it, he has evaded the dinner plate for over 100 years and counting.
Punxsutawney Phil is immortal—allegedly
A typical groundhog will live six to eight years in the wild. Punxsutawney Phil, the official groundhog of America’s largest Groundhog Day celebration (and costar in the hit movie Groundhog Day), has been alive since, uh, 1887. Or so his website says. To what does Phil owe his impossibly impressive 134 years? A magical elixir called, yet again, “groundhog punch”—presumably not the same recipe of vodka and eggs that its original authors quaffed. According to the lore-keepers of the modern Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, Phil is fed a single sip of groundhog punch every summer, instantly granting him another seven years of life. (In other words, the opposite of vodka.) Here are some immortal animals that basically live forever.
What does an “immortal” marmot do for fun? Drink and read
Phil has seen a lot in the past century, and he is less sheltered than you’d expect from someone who literally lives with his head in the ground. During Prohibition, for example, Phil publicly threatened to impose 60 weeks of additional winter if he wasn’t allowed a drink. Phil has cooled down significantly these days. For that, we can likely thank his wife, Phyllis. Together, Phil and Phyllis enjoy a quiet life together at the Punxsutawney Memorial Library, where they live during the 364 days not spent looking for their shadows.
Groundhog Day sent tourism in Gobbler’s Knob’s skyrocketing
While Gobbler’s Knob—home of Punxsutawney Phil—has seen its share of tourism every Groundhog Day since the tradition began, actor Bill Murray and his holiday-themed film truly put it on the map. Following the 1993 release of Groundhog Day, starring Bill and Phil, Gobbler’s Knob started seeing crowds as large as 35,000 people on February 2 (for comparison, the population of Punxsutawney at the time was less than 7,000). Two years later, Phil was invited as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Don’t miss these other famous animals that changed history.
Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell had Phil’s back in court—or would have, had it come to that
In a 2013 news story barely discernible from the sort of satire that runs in The Onion, an Ohio lawyer demanded that Punxsutawney Phil pay for a fraudulent weather prediction—with his life. “On or about February 2, 2013, at Gobbler’s Knob, Punxsutawney Phil did purposely, and with prior calculation and design, cause the people to believe that spring would come early,” Ohio prosecutor Michael Gmoser wrote in a cheeky open letter. “Contrary to the Groundhog Day report, a snowstorm and record low temperatures have been and are predicted to continue in the near future, which constitutes the offense of Misrepresentation of early spring, an Unclassified Felony, and against the peace and dignity of the state of Ohio.”
The punishment for this crime? “The death penalty.”
Absurdly, the saga continued when a Pennsylvania law firm openly responded to Gmoser, arguing that the Ohio attorney had no authority to prosecute in Punxsutawney. Furthermore, Phil had a formidable team of character witnesses behind him, as starring in Groundhog Day had helped Phil forge “lifelong and loyal friendships with the lesser supporting cast, including Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliot,” the firm wrote. “It is believed that Punxsutawney Phil has already been in contact with Mr. Murray, Ms. MacDowell, and Mr. Elliot, all of whom allegedly pledged to ‘have his back’ should legal action be necessary.” (It wasn’t.)
Robo-groundhogs may be the future
We’ve come a long way from eating groundhogs, but their safety is still not guaranteed. On Groundhog Day 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio accidentally dropped Staten Island groundhog Charlotte, resulting in internal injuries that killed her a week later. In 1999, Canadian groundhog celebrity Wiarton Willie died the Sunday prior to Groundhog Day, but the news was scandalously withheld until February 3. Stories like these, compounded by the increasingly large crowds at Gobbler’s Knob, prompted PETA to suggest an alternative: Replace Punxsutawney Phil with a robot groundhog.
While fears of a cyber-marmot uprising fill your head, consider Washington, D.C.’s cheaper solution: Potomac Phil, the city’s anointed groundhog since 2014, is a taxidermied thrift shop purchase. Strange? Sure. But it turns out D.C. isn’t alone when it comes to unique wildlife—read up on the strangest animal found in every state.
- Stormfax: “Stormfax Weather Almanac”
- Scientific American: “7 Things You Didn’t Know About Groundhogs”
- Stam Zervanos, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Pennsylvania
- PSU: “Totemism and Civic Boosterism in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, 1899-1909”
- Live Science: “Punxsutawney Phil: The Groundhog Behind the Myth”
- Washington Post: “Ohio prosecutor seeks death penalty for Punxsutawney Phil after bad forecast”
- Washington Post: “Pa. law group warns Ohio official to ‘cease and desist’ prosecution of Punxsutawney Phil”
- Gawker: “Zoo Covers Up Bill de Blasio’s Groundhog Murder”
- CBC: “Sad news on Groundhog Day – Wiarton Willie is dead”
- NBC: “PETA Wants Robot Groundhog to Replace Phil”