February 2, 2011

The Groundhog will need a shovel today

Happy Groundhog Day!
Winter's not going away anytime soon, shadow or no shadow.
Union Leader Correspondent
LONDONDERRY -- Here’s hoping the groundhog got the “snow day” memo and is taking the day off.
Not that there’s a chance of that fat little rodent seeing his shadow in the midst of a swirling winter storm, anyway.
But if you think about it hard enough — or ask a wildlife specialist — you’d understand that the promise of an abbreviated winter based on the appearance of a groundhog in the dead of hibernation season is, well, hogwash.
“The good news is that groundhogs get to sleep through this weather every year — they trek into their burrows in October, and they sleep through it all. They don’t care how much snow falls on Feb. 2. They’re just having their sweet dreams. And come April, they’ll emerge from hibernation in peak physical condition, with a 30 percent weight loss. Somehow they’ve figured
 out how to come through the winter physically fit — which makes me wonder why I’m not a groundhog,” said Eric Orff, a wildlife biologist for the state Fish & Game Department. 

Woodchucks are as close to dead as a mammal can be this time of year without actually being dead, and not much will stir them prematurely from their instinctive repose. 
Still, every Feb. 2 we wait for the word from Gobbler’s Knob on whether the world-famous Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. Holiday lore dictates that if it’s cloudy when Phil emerges from his burrow, he’ll give up on sleeping and get back to life. 
Spring hibernation break is on. 
If it’s sunny, he will be scared back into his hole by his own shadow, which means he will have no choice but to go back to sleep for six more weeks — forcing the rest of us into a seasonal purgatory of extended winter. 
Maybe that’s how they roll in Punxsutawney, but here in New Hampshire, we have our own Groundhog Day reporting system. 
For starters, ask Todd Bahan of Groundhog Landscaping in Londonderry and he’ll tell you there’s a pretty good chance winter is going to last until, oh say, the end of winter in mid-March — shadow or no shadow. 
“It’s the weather pattern we seem to be in,” said Bahan, who was busy plowing driveways Tuesday during part one of this two-day snow event. Given the name and nature of his business — which keeps him busy no matter what the weather — Bahan is not concerned with what the pint-sized Pennsylvania prognosticator predicts. 
Winter is here. Spring will get here, eventually. 
In Somersworth, Woodchuck Lane neighbors Trudy Grant and Philip Munck are both rooting for winter to end soon — even though the once prevalent woodchucks have vanished. 
“When we moved here in 1986, there were groundhogs. They were located off Granite Way, so named because there was a quarry here. So there’s rubble and underground caves where they used to roam, but I can’t say I’ve seen one here in years,” said Munck. 
Grant said she’s never bought into the whole Groundhog Day mythology, anyway. But if there’s a chance that today’s sunless sky could be an early warning system for winter’s end, she’s all for it. 
“I’d rather be optimistic about things — my husband is champing at the bit to get out and do some golfing, and I’m waiting to open the windows for some fresh air,” Grant said. 
Derek Small, a wildlife biologist with Granite State Zoo in Rochester, said we should all feel fortunate that we’re not stuck in an underground hole somewhere, dreaming of spring. 

There but for the grace of fossil fuel, go we humans.
"If not for the discovery of fossil fuels or our ability to keep living spaces warm, the only way we would have to survive in the winter is to go dormant, like groundhogs do. In nature, food is scarce unless you're a predator, and even at that, most of your prey has gone dormant too, or headed south," said Small.
For most mammals, survival in the depths of winter is a balancing act, and the hibernation of the groundhog is a reminder to us all that life is as fragile as nature is astounding.
“We have to remember that groundhogs hibernate, no because of the cold or snow, but because of the shortening of the daylight hours as we approach winter,” Small said. 
They burrow down below the frost line, about six feet into the ground, taking only one breath every four or five minutes. Their body temperature drops from about 100 F to 40 F. 
“Groundhogs would never naturally emerge from their burrows on February 2, even if we had an unusually warm winter,” said Small. “But if you’re asking me, I hope winter ends sooner than later.” 

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