Punxsutawney Phil: Friend or foe? A Groundhog Day investigation

Story highlights

  • Punxsutawney Phil has "predicted" an early spring in 2016
  • Legend has it that groundhogs come out of hibernation on February 2 to test the weather
  • Their foray into the cold is less about forecasting and more about mating, say experts
  • Groundhogs are a pest to some gardeners and farmers, who take extreme measures to be rid of them

(CNN)For more than a century, groundhogs have been midwinter luminaries, scampering into the spotlight on February 2 to divine whether the second half of the season will be cold or mild.

The stocky mammals are celebrated as soothsayers that peer into the future when they emerge from their burrows, surveying the landscape for telltale shadows that signal Jack Frost's plans for the next six weeks.
Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, is the birthplace of Groundhog Day and the home of Punxsutawney Phil, the Peyton Manning of prescient rodents. During a ceremony at sunrise, the waddling prophet is retrieved from his heated home inside a mock tree stump and hoisted heavenward by top-hatted helpers who interpret his gestures to make a prediction while thousands watch.
    Phil's stardom is coupled with infamy and not just due to the fact that his forecasts have been off 55% of the time over the past three decades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
    Farmers, gardeners and ranchers fear groundhogs, also known as woodchucks and whistle pigs, because the animals chomp on crops and dig holes in fields that may damage plows or trip up livestock.
    Groundhog Day was actually established by a hunting club. The members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club used to hunt their namesake creature during the late summer and host banquets where woodchuck was occasionally on the menu, according to Jeff Lundy, vice president of the club.
    In 1909, local newspapers reported that the governor of Pennsylvania attended the group's annual feast and 400 groundhogs were served to 400 guests. Lundy said the stories may have been exaggerated but acknowledged in the past, woodchuck was eaten as a delicacy in Punxsutawney.
    Is the groundhog friend or foe? And what's the truth behind the legend of Punxsutawney Phil's February walkabouts? We asked biologists, wildlife control specialists, hunters and animal advocates to weigh in on groundhog myths, misconceptions and controversies. As you shiver in anticipation of Phil's forecast on Tuesday, read on to learn about the secret lives of groundhogs.

    Myth: Groundhogs are nature's weathermen

    It's a fallacy that Punxsutawney Phil awakens from hibernation on February 2 to assess the weather and determine whether to continue his winter nap.
    The real groundhogs of Pennsylvania do indeed venture out of their dens in early February, but prognosticating the weather is the last thing on their marmot minds, according to a Penn State study.
    They're not looking for shadows. The animals are looking for love (and maybe some food). Moon-eyed males leave their bachelor pad burrows in pursuit of woodchuck Juliets, seeking out sweethearts in drainage ditches, roadside brambles and other hog hot spots. Before mating season begins in March, toothy lotharios embark on amorous quests to get acquainted with the females in their territory, said Penn State biology professor Stam Zervanos.
    "The first thing they need to do is find mates," said Zervanos, who co-wrote two journal articles about groundhog behavior. Using cameras and radio telemetry gear, he studied a group of 80 free-range groundhogs on the campus farm at Penn State Berks. "The timing is very important because they only have a short time to mate so the young can be successful. In order not to waste time, the males go out exploring while the females generally stay close to their burrows waiting for males to stop and say hello."
    Groundhog suitors linger around a female's den for hours but there's no hanky panky. It's too early for them to mate in February, with a scarcity of food and an abundance of predators. Once they locate a receptive female, or two, they go back to their burrows and resume hibernating, planning to return in March for mating season.
    "This is a very dangerous time for groundhogs because there's a bunch of hungry foxes and coyotes around," said Zervanos. "They can't spend a lot of time out in the open. The sooner they find a female and duck for cover, the better."
    Climate impacts the date of first emergence; groundhogs in Maine court females later in the season than their counterparts in South Carolina. Once it's time to mate, however, weather is a nonfactor.
    "They'll come out and mate no matter what," said Zervanos. "We've seen them out with snow cover. If they don't mate by early March, the young aren't going to survive. The young have a limited time window to gain enough weight for the next winter hibernation."

    Controversy: When the groundhogs have got to go

    Groundhogs may have been rare to find when settlers arrived in America but as people cleared out forests to plant crops, they created an ideal habitat for the voracious herbivores, according to Zervanos.
    In order to cope with the population boom, farmers began hunting woodchucks, and an American tradition was born. Back in the day, people supped on groundhog stew and stretched the hides to make banjos.
    An old time Appalachian folk song gleefully describes the chase and the many uses of dead groundhogs: "Shoulder up your gun and whistle up your dog/Off to the woods to catch a groundhog ... Here comes Sal with a snigger and a grin/The groundhog gravy all over her chin ... Eat up the meat and ya save the hide/The best durn shoestring that ever was tied."
    Groundhogs flourish in the suburbs, where manicured lawns and gardens are like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Many states allow hunters to pursue woodchucks year-round with few restrictions. In Pennsylvania, an average of 800,000 groundhogs are harvested annually, according to Travis Lau, spokesman for the state's game commission.
    There is one state where groundhog hunting is illegal. In Wisconsin, the critters are a protected species and the fine for killing a groundhog is $303.30, according to Tom Hauge, spokesman for the state's Department of Natural Resources. Landowners are allowed to trap or shoot nuisance woodchucks in their yards but there's a ban on hunting the animals for sport.
    "Woodchucks have been a protected species in Wisconsin since the mid-1950s," said Hauge, via email. "We do not know why they were provided protected status. They were and remain a common species in this state."
    Three years ago, Rep. Andre Jacque of the Wisconsin legislature introduced a measure to establish a woodchuck shooting season, presenting complaints from farmers and testimonials from hunters touting how tasty the animals can be fried, grilled or prepared in a pressure cooker. The measure failed, however, with pushback from citizens and legislators who characterized hunting groundhogs as a thrill kill.
    Mike Faw, a groundhog hunter from North Carolina, said his attempts to cook delicious woodchuck dinners have been unsuccessful but that doesn't mean it's a "blood sport."
    "People think we're out shooting and having a good time and just killing them to be killing them, but it does a lot of good for farmers, gardeners," said Faw, a media relations manager for a firearms accessories company and a former North Carolina game warden.
    Faw typically knocks on farmers' doors in February and March, asking for permission to scout for burrows in their fields.
    "At first, they look at you funny," said Faw, 55, who has hunted groundhogs with varmint rifles, bows and handguns. "Once you convince them you're not crazy, they invite you in for supper and draw you a map, 'Let me tell you where all of them live because we want you to shoot as many as possible.'"
    James Ramsey graduated from squirrel hunting to groundhog hunting when he got his first long range varmint rifle as a kid. The Indiana self-defense trainer and reserve police officer went on groundhog hiatus after he got married and started a career but a few years ago, he re-embraced his childhood hobby.
    James Ramsey has taken up his childhood hobby of hunting groundhogs again
    "I am a little long in the tooth to be dressed up like some forest elf crawling around stalking 'hogs but it is just as fun as I remembered it,'" said Ramsey, 61, of Fort Wayne. "I have a good time and the farmers get rid of a pest. As you look at the soybean fields, you'll see what we call 'ice cream cones.' The point of the ice cream cone is where the groundhog's burrow is. He'll eat in a semicircle out from his burrow. Groundhogs love eating fresh soybeans coming out of the ground."
    Shawn Weeks, a Connecticut-based nuisance wildlife control operator and columnist for the Farmers' Almanac, said groundhogs can be troublemakers but he wonders whether it's ethical to hunt them as a leisure activity.
    "I'm a hunter but if I don't eat it, I don't shoot it and I don't eat woodchuck," said Weeks, 50. "People might say it's more humane to put a .22 cartridge in the head of a woodchuck than to have two coyotes killing it, tearing it apart alive and fighting over it, but that is a more natural way for a groundhog to go. Predators keep things in check."
    Weeks said there's a simple, proactive step homeowners can take to make groundhogs feel unwelcome.
    "I tell everyone, 'Go outside,'" said Weeks, who is licensed to trap and euthanize groundhogs. "If there's more traffic around your property, groundhogs will be less likely to move in. People are paying landscapers big money to plant these beautiful plants and mow these succulent, perfectly green lawns and create this picture perfect environment but I never see anybody in their yards. Everyone's inside playing video games. If people are not going to use their yards, the animals will."
    Ramsey, 61, says farmers are happy to benefit from his hobby

    Acceptance: Stopping man's inhumanity to woodchuck

    The Humane Society of the United States promotes "evicting" groundhog inhabitants rather than shooting or trapping them. Placing stinky cat litter around their burrows can prompt them to skedaddle. Sensory overload is another tactic. Playing music and lining a garden with pinwheels creates a scene so confounding, woodchucks may hit the road. Once the animals leave, seal up burrows and place fencing around the area to keep out new or returning occupants.
    John Griffin, director of the Humane Society's Humane Wildlife Services department, said people's anxieties about groundhogs overtaking their yards are often unfounded.
    "Someone sees one groundhog and they think that within two years, there will be a thousand," said Griffin. "Only half the groundhogs from any litter survive, and they disperse. They find other territories and they're on the move and they're a prey animal so it's rough out there for them. A lot of times, we get calls not because there's an actual conflict but because when someone sees a groundhog, they're like 'Oh, I've got a problem.'"
    Griffin said it's wrong to think of groundhogs as freeloaders that don't contribute to the ecosystem. Eagles, hawks, owls, bobcats, badgers and coyotes consider them scrumptious. Their dens are useful to a variety of vagabond animals, including foxes, snakes and chipmunks. The burrows often have separate chambers for sleeping, storing food, caring for pups and going to the bathroom, according to Griffin.
    Lethal intervention should be a last resort, said Griffin, because there can be unintended consequences.
    "Horrible things are done to groundhogs in the name of nuisance control, like gassing them, exploding burrows, poisoning and some of them are pretty ill considered," said Griffin. "Other species get harmed in that process. If you're broadcasting poison, there's any number of animals that can be impacted, including the predators that prey on them."
    Come Groundhog Day, though, the rodent is back in favor.
    "People see the groundhog as this cute animal and celebrated personality on Groundhog Day, but if they see one in their yard, the framing changes. The groundhog didn't change. It's human psychology. It's the human condition. To say that they don't belong is to deny the fact that we've modified the landscape and created a habitat that attracts them."