Manitoba

The puppet, the fake and the real one: Manitoba's Groundhog Day representatives don't follow the rules

We've got Wyn, Bob and Merv — one a real woodchuck, one completely fictional, and the other a hand puppet, all of whom step into the spotlight once a year as the Manitoba delegation to the national roundup of groundhog weather specialists.

On Feb. 2 woodchucks across the country again get the chance to predict the weather

Manitoba Merv may be a puppet, but he's also Manitoba's senior groundhog prognosticator, with more than 25 years' experience. His competition includes Winnipeg Wyn, an actual woodchuck, and the entirely fictional Brandon Bob. (Oak Hammock Marsh)

Groundhog Day is one of the stranger events on the calendar, but even in that context, Manitoba is… nontraditional.

We've got Wyn, Bob and Merv — one a real woodchuck, one completely fictional, and the other a hand puppet, all of whom step into the spotlight once a year as the Manitoba delegation to the national roundup of groundhog weather specialists.

Every Feb. 2, select groundhogs in North American communities predict the arrival of spring by popping out of their dens. If they spot their shadows, so the folk wisdom says, winter will last for another six weeks. If they don't, an early spring is on the way.

The Manitoba version is a little different. Winnipeg Wyn is a real groundhog, but her trainers interpret her predictions based on her energy levels leading up to the big day instead of a shadow.

Manitoba Merv does rely on his shadow, but he's a puppet — brought out each year at the Oak Hammock Marsh nature centre.

Any day that celebrates ground-dwelling squirrels is a good day.- James Hare, University of Manitoba

He does, however, have seniority on the scene, with more than 25 years' experience compared to Wyn's two.

Brandon Bob doesn't exist at all, apparently, despite sporadically appearing in Groundhog Day coverage in the Globe and Mail, the Weather Channel and at least one CBC story.

The belief in his existence seems to have stemmed from an offhand — and hypothetical — remark by an Environment Canada climatologist in an interview years ago. The myth of Brandon Bob was then perpetuated each year in national news coverage.

Winnipeg Wyn visits the CBC Manitoba studio on Feb. 2, 2018. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Compared to more famous Canadian rodents like Nova Scotia's Shubenacadie Sam or Ontario's Wiarton Willie, Manitoba's variety indicates resourcefulness, according to Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips — the man responsible for Brandon Bob.

"Clearly, a lot of people are not imaginative," said Phillips.

"I always think Manitobans are one of the most resourceful people in Canada, and this kind of proves it, in a way."

'It's the spirit of Groundhog Day'

James Hare, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Manitoba and an expert on ground-dwelling squirrels, said he's not convinced a puppet can do a groundhog's job. But he likes the idea of letting Oak Hammock give it a shot.

"Any day that celebrates ground-dwelling squirrels is a good day," Hare said. 

Jacques Bourgeois, spokesperson for Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre, said when it comes to the magic of rodent weather prediction, a puppet can do just fine.

"It's not the puppet so much, it's the spirit of Groundhog Day," Bourgeois said. "It's like [asking], 'How does Santa Claus visit all the homes around Christmas time?'"

The marsh celebrates Groundhog Day each year in part because Feb. 2 is also World Wetlands Day, Bourgeois said. Merv even has a fair track record, he added, although he did miss one year when handlers lost the puppet and had to go buy another to stand in.

When they found Merv the next year, the new puppet was rebranded as Manitoba Maria, Merv's occasional companion, Bourgeois said.

The famed Wiarton Willie looks skyward in order to give his seasonal prediction on Groundhog Day 2016. Manitoba's groundhogs may not be as famous, but they demonstrate the province's resourcefulness, according to Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Sheila Smith, a founding member of Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre and trainer of Winnipeg Wyn, said her team doesn't feel competitive with Merv. They mark the day to spread a love of nature, and she says Merv can do that, too.

"[Kids are] learning new traditions. They're learning about wildlife and wanting to explore nature," she said.

"Whether it's a puppet they learn from or Winnipeg Wyn,  we just want them to want to go out and explore nature and enjoy it.

'At least there's a brain there'

In one way, all groundhogs — puppet or not — are on equal footing, says CBC meteorologist John Sauder: none of them can predict the seasons.

Even human meteorologists have a tough time with seasonal forecasting, he said.

"I just kind of look at the science end of things, rather than the rodent prognostication," he said.

"I mean, if I was to go with any of them, I would probably go with Winnipeg Wyn, because at least there's a brain there — albeit small," he added.

With files from CBC's As It Happens

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