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What’s Up with Groundhog Day Anyway?

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It’s Groundhog Day — the perfect day to learn more about not just the famed prognosticating powers of the woodchuck, but also some fun facts about these critters.

Groundhogs (Marmota monax)

Groundhogs, also called woodchucks, are the largest members of the squirrel family. They typically have brownish fur and short bushy tails.

In Toronto, they are found in large, open natural areas with abundant food and den opportunities. They are excellent diggers use their strong claws to build complex burrows which they use to escape predators, rest, give birth and hibernate.

They are true hibernators and spend almost all of winter underground surviving on their body fat and food reserves to stay alive. During hibernation they go into a comatose state with their heartbeats slowing down to as low as five beats per minute and their breaths as low as two breaths per minute.

Groundhogs emerge from hibernation sometime in February and mate soon after. They are fairly solitary creatures. When they are not eating, they can be seen caring for their young or lying in the sun. When threatened, they are also known to make a shrill warning whistle to notify other groundhogs of danger in the vicinity, thus earning them other nicknames like whistlepig.

LEARN MORE: Featured mammal: Woodchuck, Mammals of Toronto

What is Groundhog Day?

Groundhog Day is a popular North American tradition observed each year on February 2. According to tradition, if a groundhog emerges from hibernation on this day and sees its shadow on a clear day, it will retreat to its burrow for six more weeks, indicating a late spring. If it doesn’t see its shadow due to it being a cloudy day, it would mean an early spring.

The most popular furry forecaster is Punxsutawney Phil from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where thousands of people gather to celebrate the festivities surrounding Phil’s predicting prowess. Groundhog Day was made all the more popular thanks to the 1993 Bill Murray starrer by the same name.

Ontario has its own famous weather predicting celebrity — Wiarton Willie, from South Bruce Peninsula, Ontario. However, the earliest spring forecast in North America comes from Shubenacadie Sam from Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia, due to it being in the Atlantic Time Zone.

Other famous Canadian groundhogs include some real groundhogs like Fred La Marmotte in Val-d’Espoir, Quebec, and some groundhog mascots like Manitoba Merv, a hand puppet from Stonewall, Manitoba, Okanagan Okie, a stuffed plush toy from Vernon, British Columbia, or Balzac Billy, a human groundhog costume in Balzac, Alberta.

How accurate are their predictions?

Despite all the hype, a Canadian study found the reliability of these rodents to be highly suspect — being right only an abysmally low 37 percent of the time. But don’t be too critical of these critters. Weather prediction is no easy gig!

Are there groundhogs in High Park?

There are groundhogs in High Park but in relatively small numbers and are less commonly found in the park. According to the City of Toronto’s Biodiversity Booklet series, groundhogs used to be very common in Toronto, but now are rarely seen and quietly disappearing from the city’s landscape. The reason behind this might be linked to habitat loss and fragmentation, increasing populations of predators like coyotes and accidental deaths due to impacts with cars.