Saturday, January 25, 2014

What will the woodchuck whisper? Winter or Spring?

What will the Groundhog say? Will there be 6 more weeks of winter? Or is spring just around the corner? During the first part of February, there is a custom that the groundhog, or woodchuck,  will come out of his den to predict what weather we may see with the coming of spring.  According to folklore, if the day is sunny and bright and the groundhog sees his shadow, he is said to be scared of his shadow and runs back into his den to sleep and  hide for 6 more weeks of winter.  But if the day is gray and cloudy, and he doesn't see his shadow, then spring is not far away.  Each year, Punxatawny Phil, the most well-known groundhog, comes out of his den to let his fans know if they should bundle up and stay in for a few more weeks, or if they can get out and about and enjoy warmer weather.  Groundhogs, also known as woodchucks, marmots, or whistle pigs,  are members of the rodent family who burrow into the ground and stay in warm dens to keep out of the cold during the winter season.  The critters, Marmota monax, are elusive creatures who hide in their burrows for a few months in winter weather. They're typically grizzled brown and of a uniform color.  They have a bushy tail, small ears, and short legs.  Feet are typically dark brown or black.  Woodchucks are active during the day, especially in early morning or late afternoon.  In preparation for winter hibernation, they will build up a heavy layer of fat in late summer or early fall.  They will dig a winter burrow with a hibernation chamber, in which they will curl up in a ball on a mat of grass.  Once the weather warms up in the spring, they will emerge from the den and begin looking for a mate. Woodchucks will feed on green vegetation, such as grass, clover or alfalfa, or sometimes they will feed on corn and can cause some damage to a crop.  If the woodchuck gets alarmed, it will give a large, sharp whistle, followed by softer whistles as it runs to its burrow then cautiously peeks out. (source: National; Audubon Society Field Guide to Mammals) This whistling behavior is where it gets one of its unusual nicknames, the whistle pig.   The Virginia Living Museum is home to a non-releasable male woodchuck who is Newport News' very own weather prognosticator and we are having an event to honor this whistle pig on Sunday February 2. On our Facebook page, we are having a contest to name our little guy, so take a look and cast your vote. His name will be revealed during our Groundhog Day celebration, so come and see if we will have 6 more weeks of winter or if spring is just around the corner.

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