Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Does it matter if the groundhog see his shadow?

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It's Groundhog Day!

Some say the first celebration of the groundhog, at least in Punxsutawney, Pa., happened at Gobbler's Knob on Feb. 2, 1887. And since then, as tradition has it, the rodent rouses and leaves its comfortable winter home in the ground and, if it sees its shadow, scurries back to spend another six weeks catching up on its sleep. Unlike bears that sleep, groundhogs actually enter a deep hibernation. If it doesn't see its shadow, it means an early spring. (And, in these parts, would probably starve to death waiting for grasses and nourishing clovers to germinate.)

Just what does hibernation mean? In short, it means losing body temperature and slowing down its heartbeat from 80 to 5 beats per minute. During this time, groundhogs don't eat as do chipmunks, for instance, that sleep a lot but wake up regularly to eat stored foods, like seeds and acorns. Rather than cache food, groundhogs voraciously consume plants to accumulate enough fat to keep them not only through hibernation but for a while after they leave the den in spring when succulent plants may not yet be readily available. They gain weight for six months and lose much of it during the ensuing six months.

The biggest surprise when learning about groundhogs or woodchucks comes when we learn that these chunky, short-legged rodents can climb trees up to 15 feet or more to escape predators and, like many human sun worshipers, they enjoy basking in the sun.

Groundhog Day has its roots in an ancient Christian tradition called Candlemas when clergy would distribute candles needed for the dark winter. The candles represented how long and cold the winter would be. Germans expanded on this concept upon arriving in America, by selecting the hedgehog as a means of predicting the weather. Once here, German settlers in Pennsylvania continued the tradition. However, they switched from the common European hedgehogs to groundhogs, which were plentiful in America.

Back when I ran the Junior Naturalists Club at The Berkshire Museum, I came up with the idea of throwing a Groundhog Party for the kids. We played pin the tail on the groundhog, did rodent-related word puzzles, and learned interesting facts about the largest member of the squirrel family in New England.


Q. Every year, I wait for my first sign of spring, the return of the red-wing blackbird at the end of February or beginning of March. This morning (Jan. 26) in a swamp on Larrywaug Road in Stockbridge, I heard the call and had to go into the swamp to see. There, in the cattails, was a pair of red-wing blackbirds. I have never seen them this early. Is it global warming or confused blackbirds? I am hoping it means a warmer than normal February into spring.

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Judi, Stockbridge

A. It is always exciting to encounter "spring birds" early. Still, seeing early red-wing blackbirds is not an indication of what February or March will be like. Birds are far from being "bird brains" and are really far smarter than we give them credit. They can be seen now in valleys, often along rivers and occasionally at bird feeders in the Berkshires during the winter. In late February, males begin arriving, a few at first, and as March progresses, in higher numbers.

This past Jan. 1, an intrepid group of birders saw 217 individuals during their South Berkshire bird count, maybe in part because the winter thus far has not really been as winter-like as we expect. Global warming or climatic changes, whichever you prefer, may have something to do with it.

I have had red-wings at my feeders in mid-March, but never in the dead of winter, but I always hope for one to prove to myself I must be doing something right. I do offer several of the winter foods red-wing blackbirds eat, including peanut hearts, hulled black oil sunflower seeds and millet. (During the summer months, their diet mainly consists of insects.)

I cannot think of another species that shows greater sexual dimorphism! In their breeding plumage, the males are solid black with red wing-patches with a light-yellow stripe below, that they sometimes show. And to better understand what is meant by dimorphism, the female is smaller, dark brown and streaked. Add to that, they have a white line over each eye. In my earliest days of bird watching as a youth, I wondered what the occasional striped bird I would see in the marshes was. After I was given a "Peterson Field Guide to the Birds," I found out.

Q. A friend of my wife who lives in Dalton reported to her that a bear destroyed several bird feeders and those of a neighbor several days ago. So much for hibernation or deep sleep. It is January, isn't it?

Tom Collins (a long-time birding friend)

A. It was, and now its February. In recent years, we have come to expect "January thaws," almost any time, and with these thaws or even open winters, male bears or young females without cubs are apt to wander about searching for food. There apparently was a time when all bears would hide during the cold months, primarily because of the lack of food.

Things have changed and with so many bird feeders, dumpsters and outside trash cans providing meals, they are far more active. I think it was about five years ago when a bear at Canoe Meadows Sanctuary was sleeping away in a hollow tree with its back exposed to the weather. So, it is more apt to be the availability of food than weather conditions. However, winters lately have been kinder to wildlife, which dictates when bears will be active. They don't hibernate, as does the rodent we celebrate today.


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