The trials and tribulations of America’s furry forecasters

By Zoë W Berken

Graphic by Kate North

On Feb. 2, Americans across the country turn off the weather channel and look to another source for winter weather predictions: groundhogs.

Rooted in German and Celtic tradition, a legend evolved claiming that if a hibernating animal cast a shadow on the second of February, six more weeks of winter would ensue. If no shadow was cast, it was thought spring would come early. 

The first Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA was sold to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club – a group of businessmen and groundhog hunters – by a local newspaper editor. The inaugural groundhog carried bad news, emerging just in time to see his shadow and predicting six more weeks of winter. 

Nowadays, Groundhog Day is a popular celebration across America. Well-known groundhogs include the likes of Punxsutawney Phil, Staten Island Chuck, Milltown Mel of Milltown, New Jersey and many more.

One of the first and most famous groundhogs, Punxsutawney Phil, is cared for by the inner circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. The members of this inner circle are tasked with Phil’s care and the translation of his predictions from “Groundhogese” to English. 

It is said that Phil has been making weather predictions since 1887, and all other groundhogs are considered imposters. Phil is kept alive by “groundhog punch,” or elixir of life, administered annually at the Groundhog Picnic in the fall, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

Staten Island Chuck is another groundhog with rich, albeit more recent, history. Formally known as Charles G. Hogg, Chuck made headlines after a 2009 incident involving the New York City Mayor. 

Seemingly unhappy to be awoken, Chuck bit Mayor Michael Bloomberg hard enough to draw blood through his leather glove. In 2013, Bloomberg declined to attend his final Groundhog Day as mayor, with no comment provided.

Chuck was secretly replaced by his granddaughter, Charlotte, for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first Groundhog Day. On Feb. 2, 2014, de Blasio dropped “Chuck” from a height of roughly six feet, surprising and shocking a crowd of children. 

Despite Staten Island Zoo’s cover-up attempts, it came to light months later that Charlotte, who had done the job in Chuck’s place, died Feb. 9 the same year . The zoo cited natural causes, while The New York Post claimed she suffered internal injuries from the fall. Staten Island Zoo later adjusted their story, claiming it was “unlikely” the fall killed her. 

A year later, Charlotte Jr. took the mantle, predicting early spring from the safety of a plexiglass habitat, as Mayor de Blasio watched from 6 feet away. This would be de Blasio’s final appearance at the Groundhog Day celebration. De Blasio was later quoted saying, “I tried it, it didn’t end well, I won’t be back,” according to New York Daily News.

While Staten Island Zoo claims an 80% accuracy rate for Chuck’s predictions, Phil’s inner circle claims 100% accuracy. However, impartial estimates show below a 50% accuracy rate for Phil. Regardless of which groundhog you bet your crops on, don’t delete your weather app just yet.


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