Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 2, 2013

Ag Forum: Better ways than a groundhog

Most groundhogs are still hibernating right about now

BY ERWIN ELSNER
Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — Whether or not a disturbed rodent saw its shadow this morning is of no concern to me.

Punxsutawney Phil, the most renowned of the country's prognosticating groundhogs, has a miserable 39 percent accuracy rating on predicting if spring will come early or if there will be six more weeks of winter.

By the way, six weeks from now is only March 16, which is really not that late for spring weather to start. Asking for an early spring is only asking for trouble — just ask any of our local cherry or apple growers about how that turned out in 2012.

Why would a groundhog have any business being awake on Feb. 2 anyway? Under natural conditions, they are true hibernators, staying in a deep state of torpor through the entire winter. They do not wake up and emerge from their dens on nice days like squirrels do.

Also known as woodchucks and whistle-pigs, the groundhog is a member of the rodent family, found in lowland areas from Alaska to Georgia. Groundhogs are closely related to marmots, which are found in mountainous terrains. Typically ranging from 16 to 26 inches in length and four to nine pounds in weight, very well-fed individuals may reach 30 pounds. Most live for about six years, though some in captivity have made the ripe old age of 14.

They are mainly vegetarians, but they will also consume insects and snails. Their digging abilities are impressive — typical burrows involve the excavation of 35 cubic feet of soil, weighing over 700 pounds. Tunnels may extend for over 40 feet and be as deep as five feet under the surface. That's where they are supposed to be, sound asleep today.

The first mention of a Pennsylvanian yanking a groundhog out of its den to see if it cast a shadow was recorded back in 1841. Punxsutawney Phil came onto the scene in 1887 and has been the most well-known and publicized four-legged forecaster ever since.

There are plenty of lesser-known groundhogs trying to emulate the old master — 36 other groundhog predictions were made in different places around the country in 2012. Phil cast a shadow and predicted six more weeks of winter. Michigan's own, known as "Woody," works out of the Howell area and correctly predicted the early spring of 2012. Overall, the tally was 27 predictions of "early" and 10 for "six more weeks" with no abstentions.

See www.groundhog.org for Phil's official web site, which might just be a little biased about reporting how accurately the predictions have been. For a more scientific review of the whole spring-prediction by furry mammals phenomenon, see www.ncdc.noaa.gov/special-reports/groundhog-day.php.

Erwin "Duke" Elsner is Michigan State University Extension small fruit educator.