High atop Gobbler’s Knob in western Pennsylvania, the Seer of Seers, the Prognosticator of all Prognosticators, Punxsutawney Phil was pulled from his hibernaculum in the old oak stump at 7:28 a.m. on February 2nd and announced that he did not see his shadow, thus forecasting an early spring. This year marked Phil’s 127th prediction. Punxsutawney Phil has predicted an early spring twice in the last seven years. Last year he predicted six more weeks of winter when we had had one of the mildest winters on record. This begs the question: How correct can a groundhog truly be at predicting the coming of spring?
The groundhog, or sometimes called the woodchuck, is Indiana’s largest member of the squirrel family. They are most active during the day from late winter through mid-fall and tend to stay close to an extensive network of underground burrows. One of these burrows has a single entrance and is used for hibernation. Timing of when groundhogs enter and emerge from hibernation depends on ambient temperatures, season, and latitude. Groundhogs typically enter hibernation burrows near the autumnal equinox in October. Timing of emergence varies considerably, with adult males emerging in February while females and younger males emerge in March.
The first day of spring occurs on the vernal equinox, around the 20th or 21st of March, which is approximately 47-48 days (6.7-6.9 weeks) from February 2nd. Given that Phil is likely yanked from his slumber before he is ready to come out, one could argue that he is fairly accurate any year he predicts six more weeks of winter when you consider the actual date of the first day of spring. Perhaps that is why Groundhog Day proponents claim he is correct 75-90% of the time! However, scientists from the National Climatic Data Center claim he is correct only 39% of the time in regards to spring-like weather patterns.
Will Phil be correct this year? It is hard to imagine an early spring since it is 21 degrees and snowing in Indiana as I write this on February 2nd. So far, it has been a roller coaster winter, with January temperatures ranging between 2 and 65 degrees. Whether Phil is right or wrong, I will take any weather dished out knowing that spring beauties, trilliums, and Dutchmen’s breeches will soon be painting their colors on the forest floor and the daffodils will awaken in my yard. Happy Groundhog Day!
Rob Chapman, Extension Wildlife Specialist
Purdue University, FNR