It usually takes a few days of balmy weather before a groundhog knows enough to come out from its den, so these furry rodents are much better at summing up past weather patterns than prognosticating.
So just how did groundhogs get their reputation?
Groundhog Day on Feb. 2 evolved from a tradition brought here by European settlers.
Nineteenth-century European farmers knew warmer weather was coming when hedgehogs started scurrying around the fields—something early immigrants continued to look for once arriving in America, says Dan Powell, lead keeper at Brookfield Zoo’s Children’s Zoo.
In Europe’s milder climate, it was not unusual for the small animals to appear in early February, when spring planting began. Here in America, hedgehogs were not native. Enter the groundhog, surrounded by a few myths.
Myth: According to tradition, if a groundhog sees its shadow, expect six more weeks of winter. If it doesn’t, warm spring weather is on the way.
Fact: Actually, it’s uncommon for an Illinois groundhog to come out in early February. It usually has to be consistently 50 degrees before the groundhog will venture out, says Powell. And that’s not likely to happen in Chicago.
Still, Groundhog Day is a great opportunity to teach your children about nature’s diversity and that rodents aren’t just pests, says Powell.
“Everyone thinks of rodents as rats, but there are also beavers and woodchucks that don’t have as much of a stigma to them,” says Powell. “They can teach you that what some people associate with prairies can be in our backyards.”
Groundhogs can be found throughout Illinois and North America, occasionally making their way into suburban backyards. If you see a hole 10 to 12 feet deep and 50 feet long, you’ll know you have one, Powell says. Although with a hole that size, the groundhog may be the least of your problems.
They are the second largest rodents in the state, weighing in at between 7 and 17 pounds, heftier than an average house cat. They eat mostly fruits and plants, but also snack on insects and eggs, he says.
At 10:30 a.m. Feb. 2, Brookfield Zoo will host its annual celebration at the Children’s Zoo with Stormy and Cloudy, the groundhogs.
The Little Red School House and Nature Preserve, 9800 Willow Springs Rd., Willow Springs, will celebrate from 1:30-2:30 p.m. Feb. 5. Staff will answer questions and there will be crafts and activities for children.