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After suffering through more than one “polar vortex” it’s a safe bet that Shelby Countians are hoping that Punxsutawney Phil and his fellow groundhogs don’t see their shadows on Sunday.
According to folklore, if it’s cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day – Feb. 2, or Groundhog Day – then spring will come early. Or, if it’s sunny, the groundhog sees his shadow and returns to his burrow – resulting in six more weeks of winter.
This national tradition focuses on Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvania groundhog that brings out throngs of television cameras – and applause when he remains outside of his burrow.
Shelby County might not have a legendary groundhog, but it does have its share of the four-legged rodents otherwise known as the woodchuck or whistle-pig.
“We definitely have them – just ask the farmers,” said Joan White, a retired state Fish and Wildlife conservation officer and self-professed groundhog expert. “They do a lot of damage to the farmer.”
A groundhog will help itself to anything and everything planted. They are vegetarians and are partial to leaves, flowers and grasses. They especially like certain garden crops such carrots, beans and peas. They will even climb trees to eat apples and pears.
Beyond farmers and gardeners, though, many residents don’t know much about these furry “weather forecasters.”
Groundhogs, for one, dig their own homes – architecture that can destroy a farm’s field and farm machinery. Groundhogs are well-adapted for digging, with short but powerful limbs and curved, thick claws. Their burrows, which run about 6 feet deep and about 20 feet long, often have as many as five entrances or exits.
“Groundhogs are much larger than a mole,” said White, who was born in Spencer County and grew up in Shelby County, where she lives now. “So the holes are much larger. There’s a sleeping room and even a bathroom. They curl up down there and stay quite warm.”
This time of year, though, groundhogs are scarce.
“They’re hibernating,” White said. “If it gets warm enough, they might come out and forage for grasses, but really you’re not going to see them this time of year.”
To survive the winter, groundhogs are at their maximum weight shortly before entering hibernation. They emerge from hibernation with some remaining body fat to live on until the warmer spring weather produces abundant plant materials for food.
Outside their burrows, groundhogs are alert when not actively feeding. It is common to see one or more nearly motionless individuals standing erect on their hind feet watching for danger. When alarmed, they use a high-pitched whistle to warn their friends and family, hence the name “whistle-pig.”
Groundhogs may squeal when fighting, are seriously injured or caught by a predator. Other sounds groundhogs may make are low barks and a sound produced by grinding their teeth.
When groundhogs are frightened, the hairs of the tail stand straight up, giving the tail the appearance of a hair brush.
But what about their supposed weather-predicting capabilities and the infamous Punxsutawney Phil?
“That doesn’t work,” White said. “That’s just something they do up there, to do. We have the Kentucky Derby; they have Groundhog Day. Besides, if it stays this cold, he won’t come out at all.”
Note:Writer Stephanie Doyle was born on Ground Hog’s Day but takes no responsibility for Punxsutawney Phil’s behavior – unless he remains outside to welcome spring, and spring actually comes sooner rather than later.