There is an awful lot of fuss centered around Punxsutawney Phil, the notoriously famous groundhog from Pennsylvania who is pampered and protected all year long, and then asked to make a one-day prediction on our meteorological fate.
He makes the call on when spring will show up. The folklore has it that if Phil sees his shadow, meaning it is a sunny day, then that is bad news. He is telling us there will be six more weeks of winter.
If he does not see his shadow, which means it is another gloomy, gray winter day, then that is good news. That is supposed to indicate an early spring is on the way. Phil is a cute critter, and it's a fun ritual, but let's not put much stock in his ability to peek around the corner. Over the past century or so, the Phils have been right only 39 percent of the time.
Other folks like to rely on robins showing up in the backyard as their sure sign that spring is near. But that can be a very flawed method as well, since a number of robins spend the winter here, saving the long flight south and sustaining themselves on fruit and berries.
When the buds on our trees show signs of loosening their tight grip and preparing to show their flowers, that can be a conclusive piece of evidence that spring is knocking on the door. Other times, we need to see some determined crocus plants pushing their way up through a thin layer of snow before we believe change is in the works.
But over the years, I've learned to trust one sign of spring over all the others, since it occurs with no fanfare, and likely gets little notice. There are no TV cameras, no bright colors and no splashy display.
You can have the more famous red flags indicating spring is near, but give me a stumbling, dopey, half-asleep woodchuck and then I am convinced.
If you are paying close attention to the surroundings on a drive through the country or down the interstate these days, you will see these fellows along the crests of the ditch banks, soaking up the sun and trying to snap out of the stupor induced by their long winter's nap.
After they get their footing a bit, the woodchucks of spring will wander out in the nearby fields, looking to dine on any leftovers from last year, and trying to recharge their system for the active eight months ahead. Food is the primary target now, because he is famished he likely hasn't strapped on the feed bag since November when a hard frost sent him into his burrow and his long snooze started.
The woodchuck survives all winter on reserves of body fat built up by a rich diet during the summer and fall. When he slips into a deep sleep, his heart rate and metabolism slow, and his body temperature drops. When the spring wake-up call comes, it takes a while for the groggy fellow to get his bearings.
The woodchucks in our parts also are known as ground hogs, but they are the wild, distant cousins of Phil, who is coached and coddled throughout the year, all in preparation for his one day of fame. Our woodchucks are on their own, guided only by nature's clock, so they give us a much more accurate idea of the change in seasons.
The woodchuck, also referred to as a land beaver in some parts of North America, is an adaptable guy with a broad range. He can be found as far north as Alaska, and as far south as Alabama. He is actually a rodent, and a member of the marmot family of large ground squirrels.
The rains and warmer temperatures will keep claiming the snow drifts and melting away the ice on our lakes and ponds. The sprouts in the garden are not too far from punching through the surface. But the most reliable ambassador for spring we've found is the woodchuck. He doesn't come out of that winter slumber until he is convinced the season is right.
Matt Markey is the A-T outdoors columnist.
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