Woodchuck Winnipeg Willow dies days ahead of Groundhog Day

A lovable woodchuck known for her nose-to-the-ground weather predictions has died just days before Groundhog Day.

Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre cancels Groundhog Day events following Willow's demise

Winnipeg Willow, pictured here in February of 2015, has died. (CBC)

A lovable woodchuck known for her nose-to-the-ground weather predictions has died just days before Groundhog Day.

Winnipeg Willow, a five-year-old groundhog orphaned as a baby, died Friday night, the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre said.

"We are in complete shock and sadness with tears coming down our face," an organizer with the centre said in a post on Facebook. "She was acting her normal self [Friday] morning and eating a carrot, but came in this evening to find her gone."

As part of Groundhog Day every year, Willow gave predictions about when spring would arrive based on whether she saw her shadow upon emerging from a hole.

Woodchucks like Willow normally live between four and six years in the wild, the centre said, adding she served as an important wildlife education ambassador to the public. 

"She loved her sweet peas and her kale greens, she had her vegetables while she was at school, which taught the kids to eat their vegetables too."

Sheila Smith, who worked with Willow for many years, said the woodchuck had been very active in recent days and the death comes as a surprise.

"It was so sudden — we're all taking it really hard right now," Smith said. "It was something we were not expecting."

Smith said the woodchuck often gets a bad reputation, but getting to interact with Willow helped make people realize they aren't always pests.

"A lot of people don't like woodchucks in their yards, farmers don't like them," she said. "But when you meet her and you see her personality ... she does make you think, 'Oh, she's cute.'"

'She had her grumpy moments'

Willow led a comfortable life, ate kale greens whenever she liked and could nap for days on end without interruption from staff at the centre, Smith added.

"She had her grumpy moments," Smith said. "When it was really cold and she just wanted to sleep, she would go in her den and take a nap."

Willow's untimely death has prompted the centre to cancel its usual Feb. 2 Groundhog Day event this year.

"We loved trying to predict the upcoming forecast and I think we only got one season right," the centre said in a post on Facebook.

"From her current behaviour this past winter, we were going to predict an early spring as she was eager to head outdoors."

Spring predictions in the province now fall solely on the bristly shoulders of Manitoba Merv, the other local weather prognosticator. Unlike Willow, Merv is a puppet.
Manitoba Merv flies a flag indicating an early spring in 2015 at Oak Hammock Marsh north of Winnipeg. (Oak Hammock Marsh)