On Feb. 2, all eyes are on the groundhog, that burly member of the squirrel family who is known as the predictor of whether we will have six more weeks of winter or an early spring. In more than 130 years of predictions, the nation’s most-watched groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, has been right only 39 percent of the time, but that lackluster record has not diminished his celebrity.
Groundhog Day was mentioned for the first time in a Punxsutawney, Pa. newspaper in 1886, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club’s website. It wasn’t until the following year that townspeople proceeded to Gobbler’s Knob to awaken the groundhog for what has become its annual weather prediction ritual — one that now brings thousands to a town about 80 miles from Pittsburgh.
Not everyone looks forward to Phil’s annual appearance.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has called for Phil’s retirement “to a reputable sanctuary” to spare him the abrupt awakening followed by all the stressful noise and crowds. The organization has accused the groundhog club and the county of exploiting Phil for tourism dollars. In 2020, PETA offered to provide an animatronic groundhog “equipped with artificial intelligence that can actually predict weather.”
But Phil isn’t the only groundhog celebrity predicting the weather. Massachusetts has Ms. G, who lives at Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln. She was designated by legislators as the state’s official groundhog in 2014 and makes her own annual predictions, which are frequently at odds with her Pennsylvania counterpart’s.
Cape Codders do not seem to be particularly fond of groundhogs. They are the bane of farmers and gardeners, who refer to the rodents as woodchucks, though some call them whistlepigs because of the high-pitched sound they make to signal potential danger.
According to the state’s Div. of Fisheries and Wildlife, woodchucks can burrow under sheds, porches, decks, and walkways, and typically have several entrances to their extensive underground networks. The main shaft can be up to 50 feet with several side passages. They are vegetarians, feasting on clover, wild lettuce, grasses, chickweed, and dandelion. Woodchucks can climb trees and eat the leaves.
Orleans farmer Judy Scanlon battled woodchucks in her garden several years ago. She might spend a whole day planting bean seedlings, she said, and find every single leaf eaten off the stalks the next morning.
She tried Havahart traps, catching them at their burrows and releasing them elsewhere, which didn’t appear to put a dent in their numbers, she said. One hefty groundhog found a way to get inside the trap and consume the cantaloupe she used as a lure while holding the back door of the trap open with his rear end. “Then he would just back out,” Scanlon recalled. She never did catch that one.
Scanlon got tougher after finding a burrow inside her greenhouse. “That was the last straw,” she said. She ran a hose into the burrow to get rid of them.
Scanlon thinks their numbers are fewer these days. “They used to be everywhere, but I haven’t seen one on the Cape in a long time,” she said, wondering if coyotes have had an effect.
Gretel Norgeot, another Orleans farmer, reported her share of woodchuck woes. A few years ago, at least one of them took up residence in her woodpile and conducted raids on her garden. She put up a fence, which the woodchuck simply scaled. “I wound up planting a lot of stuff outside the garden, which satisfied him for a while,” Norgeot said. The trick was to use up the wood supply. “Once the woodpile was gone, he left.”
In the past, when there were more farmers, Massachusetts towns, including at least one on Cape Cod, set bounties on woodchucks. Not only did they eat crops but their burrow holes were a danger to horses, who could break a leg stepping into them.
In a 2010 letter to the Woods Hole Museum regarding its documentation of that fact, James Cardoza of Falmouth wrote that his town had a budget line item for the bounties up until 1970. “As a youth in the 1950s,” he wrote, “I well remember claiming the 50-cent bounty for the occasional woodchucks that my mother shot in our home garden, aiming her .22 rifle out the kitchen window.” Cardoza went on to note, “It was the tail, not the ears, that was required to be presented to claim the bounty.”
Still, groundhogs have their fans. Eastham resident Willow Shire counts Groundhog Day among her favorite holidays. She makes Groundhog Day greeting cards for about 140 friends each year — a tradition she started 15 years ago after she was in Australia at Christmas and failed to send her holiday cards.
Shire draws and decorates each card by hand and always uses glitter generously. It takes her about a month and leaves her house “covered with glitter for the whole year.”
Each card features a groundhog. Following that Australia trip, the groundhog was disguised as a wombat. The year she was in Morocco, the groundhog gave the weather prediction for Morocco. In 2017, the year Donald Trump took office, the groundhog was absent from the front of the card.
“She had gone to Canada,” Shire said.