With the meteorological swings the area has experienced this season, surely no one would blame local groundhogs if they rejected the whole weather-predicting business and stayed in their underground dens on their big day last week.
And that’s excactly what happened last week at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center in DuPage County.
“We’re happy to let Punxsutawney Phil and Woodstock Willie have all the fame and glory of making weather predictions,” said Sandy Fejt, Willowbrook site manager. “Because at Willowbrook we help visitors learn about how animals behave in the wild,”
The farther north a groundhog lives, the earlier it begins hibernation and the later it awakes from that state. In this area, groundhog hibernation begins in late October or early November and ends in late February or early March, depending on environmental factors such as snow and temperature.
Fejt said that most towns’ prognosticating mammals are captive creatures that are not harmed by their participation in Groundhog Day celebrations.
But waking a wild groundhog before it would emerge naturally could cause a threat to the animal’s health.
“During hibernation, a groundhog’s heartbeat, metabolism and respiration slow, allowing it to live on its body fat,” explains Fejt. “If a groundhog is awakened from hibernation too early, it might not have the energy to find food and survive in cold winter temperatures.”
Groundhog Day marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the vernal (spring) equinox.
What started as a remnant of pagan festivals of rebirth and renewal and a Christian holiday known as Candlemas Day turned into a day of weather prediction.
Legend has it that if the groundhog emerges from its hibernation hole on Feb. 2 and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If no shadow appears, spring is expected to arrive soon.