Today only: In praise of groundhogs


Groundhogs and gardeners are sworn enemies. They always will be. But Groundhog Day is here, and a truce is nigh.

For 24 hours, I am willing to bury the hatchet somewhere besides in the varmint's head.

Relax, I'm kidding. I love the cute little rascal, as long as he's devouring someone else's crops.

Every Feb. 2, the groundhog pretends he is Willard Scott. That's when this roly-poly clown stands on his hind legs, stares at the sky and, in front of television cameras, tries to predict the advent of spring.

The only difference is that Willard gets paid a lot of money for doing this. The groundhog does not.

Gardeners see a darker side to the animal's annual forecast. According to them, Feb. 2 is the day when Mr. Groundhog tells gardeners when to start growing vegetables for him to eat. Whether you plant now or six weeks hence, this ravenous rodent is sure to strike before harvest.

The groundhog, a.k.a. woodchuck, marmot and whistlepig, has a voracious appetite and can raze a row of peas in seconds. A single animal can eat one-half ton of alfalfa in summer. Groundhogs also fancy cabbages, beans, young corn and pumpkin vines.

They have even been known to climb trees and bushes to reach cherries and blackberries.

Gardeners counter with a barrage of devices designed to discourage the creature: everything from mothballs to loud rock music to lion manure. Reportedly, electric fences and live traps are most effective. But no method is foolproof.

In 1883, New Hampshire officials pronounced the groundhog "destitute of interesting qualities" and put a 10-cent bounty on its head. In the 1920s, frustrated farmers in Hagerstown used poison gas on groundhogs who were destroying their crops.

Groundhogs are relentless diggers. Their burrows have sabotaged pastures, disabling both farm equipment and livestock. A 56-foot den was discovered in a farm field in Michigan. In Liberty, Ky., a groundhog tunneled through two feet of gravel and blacktop to emerge in the middle of Main Street.

Groundhogs can irritate gardeners without even trying. In 1968, a Cedar Grove, Md. housewife who was innocently weeding her tomatoes was grazed by a bullet that was meant for a groundhog.

Nonetheless, we honor the critter each year. We even wake him up from a deep sleep to celebrate his day in the sun -- or shade.

Some years, he is better off staying in bed. Groundhog Day, 1933 ended in tragedy for two such animals. In Jones, Okla., a woodchuck that was strolling around town fell in Fred Proctor's lily pond and drowned. In Oradell, N.J., a groundhog reportedly saw his shadow just before he walked into the path of a speeding bus.

Towns all across the country have Groundhog Day sightings and parties. Jimmy The Greek once gave odds on whether one would see its shadow on Feb. 2.

Groundhogs are found in every state except Hawaii. But nowhere are they held in such high regard as in Punxsutawney, Pa., a farming community of 6,000. The town mall is called Groundhog Plaza, the high school nickname is the "Chucks," and the bank prints checks with a groundhog motif. There is a bronze statue of a groundhog in the town square; people rub its nose for good luck.

Punxsutawney, which is near Pittsburgh, has celebrated Groundhog Day for 104 years. This year's festivities, spread over four days, include a groundhog dance, where people drink a concoction called "groundhog nogg." The town also bestows gifts on the first child born on Groundhog Day.

None of this would be possible without Punxsutawney Phil, the town's 10-pound mascot. This morning, Phil was coaxed from his artificially-heated lair on a chilly hillside to look for his shadow. Each year, Phil's reaction to the weather is delivered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, and noted in the Congressional Record.

Phil is so famous that he maintains two residences. Most of the year, the groundhog lives in a glass cage in the local civic center and eats dog food, bananas and chocolate chip cookies. It is a peaceful life for Phil, who was orphaned by a farmer's backhoe as a baby.

"He's cute as a puppy," says Bill Null, secretary of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. Phil's predecessor, also named Phil, succumbed to old age three years ago. When Phil died, Null spent $350 to have the groundhog stuffed, mounted and placed on his desk.

Though Phil is certainly popular, my favorite groundhog is the one which ambled into Alma Wilson's basement in Dearborn, Mich.

Once inside, the groundhog immediately cornered the meter reader, in what I assume was a protest of high utility bills.

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