Baltimore's slumbering groundhogs are no-shows on their big day


Baltimore's version of Groundhog Day yawned to a finish yesterday -- and the little beasts never even showed.

While in neighboring Pennsylvania, the venerable Punxsutawney Phil was awakened from midwinter slumber and hauled out of his warm burrow at the crack of dawn to render an involuntary six-week weather forecast, the three groundhogs at the Baltimore Zoo (known here as woodchucks) stayed put in their earthy beds.

Superstition holds that if a groundhog sees its shadow on Feb. 2, the critter is scared back into the burrow and another six weeks of winter ensues.

But no woodchuck with any brains is going to crawl out of bed early on his own, not even to make the locals happy, says Sandy Kempske, curator of mammals at the Baltimore Zoo.

"We encourage [the woodchucks] to come out and participate in the festivities," she says, "but I don't think woodchucks normally choose to do that on their own. The ones that do come out to see their shadows are the ones they throw out of their dens."

At the zoo yesterday morning, not one little woodchuck peeked out. A group of volunteers attending a training program waited fruitlessly by the fence enclosing the exhibit that opened last year as part of the new Children's Zoo.

Zoo employees offered various reasons for the furry trio's reticence.

"They're very shy," suggested Mike Szimanski, a zoo spokesman.

"They might just be staying in their holes. Wouldn't you?" asked a zoo secretary.

Ms. Kempske had a more scientific explanation. Come Thanksgiving, the woodchuck goes into hibernation, falling into a deep sleep. Its body temperature drops to 40 degrees, its heartbeat slows to four blips a minute, and its excretory functions cease. In this comatose state -- known as true hibernation -- the woodchuck is as close to death as it's possible without actually being dead.

While temperatures in Baltimore are not consistently cold enough for woodchucks to truly hibernate, they quasi-hibernate for short periods. Ms. Kempske said that explained why they did not readily awaken for their celebrated day in the sun.

In warm weather, the woodchucks may deign to visit the outside world, but usually this time of year it's cold, she said. At the zoo, two woodchucks have been sighted within the last few weeks, but when people gathered to watch yesterday -- zip!

The woodchucks simply could have been making a point of not doing what was expected, Ms. Kempske surmised -- perhaps hanging out in their tunnels, which may run 50 feet in length underground.

Or maybe the woodchucks knew that despite cousin Phil's chilly forecast, checking out the sunshine on Groundhog Day is no way to predict the course of winter.

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