By Roger Williams Park Zoo, Education Department
February is a big month for groundhogs! Easily overlooked the rest of the year, all eyes turn to the groundhog (also known as the woodchuck or whistle pig) tomorrow on February 2. Legend has it that if the groundhog sees his shadow, then we are due another six weeks of winter weather. But, if the groundhog emerges from his burrow and doesn’t see his shadow, then spring is on its way!
In the United States, groundhogs range from the Midwest to Northeast, including Rhode Island. You can typically find their burrows in an open field or pasture, or a wooded area right next to open land. Burrows can be elaborate underground homes with multiple entrances, about 5 feet deep and spanning 25-30 feet in length.
Around late October, when the first frost hits, groundhogs begin to enter their burrows for hibernation. A groundhog is a true hibernator, falling into a deep sleep where its heart rate, body temperature and metabolism decrease significantly. Its body will slow down so much, that if you crawled into a burrow to wake a groundhog, it would take several hours for the animal to come out of its slumbering state!
But do they wake up in February? Not likely. Groundhogs don’t operate on our calendars – and have no idea that we even dedicate the second day in February to them. Instead, these animals have an internal annual clock that lets them know that winter is over and it’s time to wake up!
One of the big reasons groundhogs hibernate is because the plants they eat are not around in the winter. While they sleep in their dens, they live solely off of the fat stores that they accumulate in the fall. In Rhode Island, February is still very much the middle of winter and plants have not begun to re-grow. Groundhogs are much more likely to emerge when the ground has thawed in March or April, and plants are abundant again!
So why do we observe Groundhog’s Day in early February? It turns out that the celebration originated in Germany. Early February is halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. People would light candles around this time to try to predict the weather. If the weather was calm and the candle stayed lit, then winter was going to stay late. If the weather was rough and the candle blew out, then spring would come early. When German settlers came to America, they brought their weather-predicting tradition with them. Over time, the groundhog’s shadow replaced the lit candle.
So this February, do what the groundhogs do – sleep in!
ACTIVITY: Exploring Shadows
Shadows may not be the best way to predict the weather, but they are fun to explore! If the day is sunny, head outside with a piece of sidewalk chalk. Find a large space where you can draw. Mark a spot in the center of the space with a giant “X”. Standing on the “X”, trace your shadow. Right down the time of day on the shadow. Repeat this every hour. What happens to your shadow during the day? Why do you think that is?
If the sun is not out that day, you can explore shadows inside using a blank wall and a lamp. Shine the lamp so that your shadow reflects on the wall. How is the movement of the shadow related to your movement? Can your shadow do everything you can do? Can you escape your shadow? With a friend, try to make your shadows give each other high fives!
For more information about animals in their natural habitat, visit Roger William’s Park Zoo located at 1000 Elmwood Avenue. Providence, RI.