RALEIGH, N.C. – 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 United States in 1887 in – you guessed it – Punxsutawney, Pa., 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 the 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 include a few at the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources – Sir Walter Wally at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, Grady at Chimney Rock State Park, and Sunshine and Stormy at the N.C. Zoo Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Other N.C. 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 made of crushed acorns from only the oldest oak trees in Raleigh.
- Wally has proven a far better prognosticator than his cousin Punxsutawney Phil – since Wally began predicting he has been right 58% of the time while Phil has been right only 37% of the time. Both groundhogs were correct last year in their predictions of an early spring.
- Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks or whistle-pigs. They build impressive burrows, anywhere from eight 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.
Sir Walter Wally will whisper his prediction for 2017 to Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane at noon Feb. 2 in front of the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Or join Grady the Groundhog for the 12th Annual Grady’s Groundhog Day Celebration at Grady’s Discovery Den at Chimney Rock State Park, Feb. 2 from 10:30 a.m. – noon.