Or should we say, “Happy ‘Land Beaver,’ ‘Ground Squirrel,’ ‘Whistler,’ ‘Ground Pig,’ ‘Canada Marmot,’ ‘Moonak,’ ‘Red Monk,’ ‘Thickwood Badger,’ ‘Prairie Badger,’ ‘Monax,’ ‘Digger,’ ‘Woodchuck’ or — ‘Groundhog’ Day!”
All of the above names refer to the same animal commonly called a groundhog, a rodent belonging to a subgroup of ground squirrels referred to as marmots. The groundhog is one of 14 species of marmots and is the largest member of the squirrel family. It’s characterized as a ground squirrel that can climb trees, swim, borrow and gnaw.
As we know, Groundhog Day annually falls on February 2 in the United States and is a popular American culture centering on the idea of the groundhog coming out of its home to “predict” the weather. Tradition has it if the groundhog sees its shadow it will be frightened and will return to its burrow, indicating there will be six more weeks of winter. If it does not see its shadow, then spring is on the way. Who came up with this weird custom?
According to timeanddate.com, thousands of years ago when animalism and nature worship were prevalent, people in the area of Europe now known as Germany believed the badger had the power to predict the coming of spring. They watched the badger to know when to plant their crops. By the time the first German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania they probably understood this was not true, but the tradition continued. Unfortunately for the privacy-seeking groundhog, there were not many badgers in Pennsylvania so the groundhog was substituted for the badger. The official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, lives at Gobbler’s Knob near Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Punxsutawney held its first Groundhog Day in the 1800s. The town has attracted thousands of visitors over the years to experience various Groundhog Day events and activities. It’s said Punxsutawney Phil was named after King Phillip.
Many weather researchers question the groundhog’s accuracy in predicting the weather. In fact, analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that, from 1988 to 2010, there was no correlation between the groundhog’s prediction and the weather for the rest of the season.
Linda Lombardi, a former zookeeper, college professor and author of Animals Behaving Badly, says the groundhog isn’t the only animal who makes a prediction about the weather. The woollybear caterpillar is striped brown and black, and, according to folklore, if the brown stripe is thick, winter will be severe; if it’s thin, the season will be mild. Insect experts disagree and say the variation in the brown bands has nothing to do with the weather — they’re just bigger on older caterpillars. But that doesn’t bother the more than 100,000 people who attend the Woollybear Festival in Vermillion, Ohio, each fall to enjoy entertainment that includes caterpillar races.
Cultures all over the world believe animals can tell when tremors are coming. These tales go as far back as 373 B.C., when it’s said all animals — rats, snakes, and even worms and beetles — left the Greek city of Helice five days before it was destroyed by a quake. In Japan, there’s a tradition claiming catfish can predict the shaking of the earth.
But what about something really important to people: like sports? Paul, an octopus who lived at a German aquarium, correctly predicted the winner of eight athletic games, including the champs of the 2010 World Cup. He flagged his choice by selecting a mussel from one of two boxes decorated with the flags of the competing countries. Although he gained worldwide fame, some fans who didn’t particularly care for his choices threatened to fry him up and serve him with sauce.
And a sheep in New Zealand named Sonny Wool correctly predicted the winner of all his home team’s matches in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Like Paul, Sonny found being a psychic animal is a dangerous occupation — he reportedly was under 24-hour protection after receiving death threats over an incorrect prediction of a win for Ireland.
The psychic animal enterprise also has expanded to include politics. In 2010, a crocodile named Harry weighed in on the closest Australian election for prime minister in years. By choosing a chicken carcass decorated with a photo of the Labor Party’s Julia Gillard, instead of one plastered with an image of her opponent, Harry correctly predicted Gillard’s victory.
Finally, if you’re wondering how the stock market is going to do, maybe you should turn to an animal. In a contest in South Korea, a parrot proved to be better than most humans at picking the stocks that would perform successfully. Her return on investment was 13.7 percent — better than all but two of the 10 human participants, who averaged a 4.6 percent loss.