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Exploring a furry weather prognosticator

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Groundhog’s Day came and went, and the news wasn’t very good — six more weeks of winter according to Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog weather predictor.

I wanted to find out a little more about the groundhog I’ve heard about since I was a little girl. How in the world did a rodent, sometimes called a woodchuck or land-beaver, become the authority on weather prediction? Here’s what I learned.

Groundhog Day combines the Native American legend of Wojak the woodchuck with the European religious holiday known as Candlemas, brought to America by immigrants in the mid-1800s. There are some conflicting stories, but the overall gist stems from the awakening of the groundhog from its winter sleep as a predictor of the length of winter. We must remind ourselves that before the technology of weather forecasting was developed, people mostly relied on nature to help them understand the seasons. I found a Scottish poem on the Internet about it:

“As the light grows longer

The cold grows stronger

If Candlemas be fair and bright

Winter will have another flight

If Candlemas be cloud and snow

Winter will be gone and not come again

A farmer should on Candlemas day

Have half his corn and half his hay

On Candlemas day if thorns hang a drop

You can be sure of a good pea crop”

It’s fun to learn how folklore comes about and how different cultures combined legend with other celebrations.

I’m told the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day” put Punxsutawney, Pa., on the map and they enjoy the tourism brought to their community every Feb. 2 for the prognostication of their beloved Phil.

To my surprise, studies review the accuracy of groundhog predictions. The data varies from 37 percent to 90 percent accuracy, depending on who’s doing the research.

Also, the NOAA National Climatic Data Center published a statement that “has described the forecasts as on average, inaccurate” and said “the groundhog has shown no talent for predicting the arrival of spring, especially in recent years.”

Darla Horner Menking is a Texas Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at darla.menking@gmail.com

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