What Wiarton Willie sees

A history of Groundhog Day traditions and superstitions.

It's always been a pack of lies, of course, but it's fun, and we need fun if we are to survive another Canadian February.

Quick facts

  • Woodchuck and groundhog are common terms for the same animal.
  • Scientific name: Marmota monax.
  • Woodchucks can climb trees and also swim.
  • Groundhogs in the wild eat green plants, such as dandelion greens, clover, plantain and grasses.
  • They feed heavily in summer, storing fat for winter hibernation.
  • By February, hibernating woodchucks have lost as much as half their body weight.
  • So how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? About 318 kilograms.

Source: Cornell University

Groundhog Day was inspired by an old Scottish couplet:

"If Candlemas Day is bright and clear/ There'll be two winters in the year."

How groundhogs got a reputation for predicting weather patterns is a mystery, because they are not the least bit interested in their shadows or the number of winter weeks remaining. The only reasons they come out of hibernation are for food and sex.

German settlers in Punxsutawney, Pa., are said to have started the tradition of watching if a groundhog sees its shadow in 1887, thus the fame of Punxsutawney Phil, the first underground rodent given credit for predicting winter's future course.

In Canada, it was 1956 before Wiarton Willie became a household name for his early February prognostications. Wiarton is a pretty town of 2,300 on the Bruce Peninsula between Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. This being an expansive nation, there are other groundhogs in other jurisdictions. Nova Scotia has Schubenacadie Sam, who's the first in the country to rear his head on Groundhog Day.

Then the tradition makes its way across our time zones, moving on to Wiarton Willie and Gary the Groundhog in Ontario, Brandon Bob in Manitoba and Balzac Billy in Alberta.

The original Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog said to be 22 years old, died during hibernation in the winter of 1998-99. The good burghers of Wiarton discovered this to their horror just before Groundhog Day 1999.

Willie's death made headlines around the world.

In February 2010, Shubenacadie Sam, Punxsutawney Phil and Wiarton Willie all predicted six more weeks of winter.

On Groundhog Day, they put Wiarton Willie face-up in a small pine casket, bright pennies over his eyes, paws clutching a raw carrot. But it was a fake! Turns out the real Wiarton Willie was so disgustingly decomposed he couldn't be put on display, so they found a stuffed facsimile and laid it in the casket.

"We didn't try to hide the fact that he was stuffed," said Tom Ashman of Wiarton Willie's publicity team. "If the media had been doing their job they would have seen the stitches on the belly."

But, why fake it?

"People needed closure," Ashman explained.

Groundhogs are woodchucks, members of the squirrel family, marmots, sometimes called "whistle-pigs." They are not the sharpest knives in the drawer. When nervous, they emit a high-pitched squeal, which might as well be an embossed dinner invitation to predators who follow the squeal until they find and eat the groundhog.

So how did they gain a reputation for predicting weather? Fact is, they aren't very good at it. The people of Wiarton insist their Willie was accurate 90 per cent of the time, but what do you expect them to say when the Groundhog Festival attracts 20,000 free-spending tourists to the town every February?

Scientific studies show groundhogs are accurate only 37 per cent of the time, which means you'd do better flipping one of the pennies that covered ol' Wiarton Willie's eyes.

Loyalists insist that Wiarton Willie possessed an uncanny ability to predict because he was born exactly on the 45th parallel, midway between the Equator and the North Pole.

According to CBC meterologist Gina Ressler, the question of which groundhog is right and which is wrong has more to do with the actual prediction being made. Seasons usually follow a common pattern, so choosing six more weeks of cold and snow is statistically the better bet.

"Speaking in terms of the weather, although it sometimes warms up, if you look year-to-year winter normally ends around the same time," she said.

And here in Canada, that is later, not sooner.