[an error occurred while processing this directive] FactsCanada.ca -- Friday Feature 2001-05Fr -- Rodents at Large
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Rodents at Large.

February 2, 2001.

Our apologies for being late today. Craig swears it has nothing to do with no sleep on Wednesday night and a bad hair day on Thursday.


Rodents at Large
By Michael Hora (mike@factscanada.ca)

Groundhog Day is celebrated today, February 2. According to legend, the groundhog emerges from its burrow at noon on that day to look for its shadow. If it is a sunny day and the groundhog sees its shadow, it becomes frightened and returns to its hole to sleep, and winter continues for six more weeks. If it does not see its shadow, it remains outside because the worst of winter is over and warmer weather is on its way.

Groundhog Day, now mainly a celebration in North American culture only, is a salute to an earlier and simpler time when all of mankind paid more attention to the seasons than it does now. The appearance of an animal such as the groundhog (as it was known to the early European settlers) after the winter heralded the coming planting season or, as we call it now, the spring. The groundhog is actually a woodchuck or marmot, a.k.a. a large squirrel.

Naturally, for folk who were so tied to the seasons as our early pioneers were, this was a portentous and momentous event and, as was often the case, superstitions grew up around the event. These superstitions were the earliest form of what has become known in Canada as "urban legends" -- of the rural kind in this case. These early Canadians also got a lot wrong with the importation of this superstition. You see, the old-timers back in the old country used, as their model for weather prognostication, the European hedgehog. This amiable little creature was much different than its North American stand-in, didn't sleep nearly as long as its cousin, and also didn't have to suffer the predation of the longer Canadian winter. The early settlers, always on the lookout for some portent that would allow them an excuse to plant early, took to the groundhogs awakening with fervour while calmly neglecting all of the troublesome evidence around them that pointed to a longer and more bitter winter here in the New World. Apparently they wanted to get going -- one of the attributes since passed on to us, their generational catchalls.

The drift of this one goes like this: If the groundhog, upon exiting his or her burrow on February 2, sees its shadow, it gets a little scared and hightails it back into the safety of the ground because it knows that there are another six weeks of winter ahead. Conversely, if the shadow isn't present, the fair weather boded is a good reason to hang around the surface. Spring, read "good and early planting", is nigh. Usually, and backed up by good hard facts from real meteorologists, the groundhog has proven sadly wrong. But that hasn't lead any good Canadian city, or aspiring political wannabe, from profiting from the legend. After all, what's a 30 percent success rate amongst friends?

Canada has had, over the years, a goodly number of these prominently buck-toothed meteorological Mephistopheles. Up until he died a couple of years ago, Ontario's Wiarton Willie was the best known. His advice on weather wisdom became the hallmark for a town that ordinarily wouldn't have become known to the world if they hadn't reinvented themselves through gimmickry such as this or having the world's largest hockey stick. Another case in point is made by Manitoba's Brandon Bob, from Brandon of the Friendly Province. Brandon however, was already famous for being the home of the Wheat Kings, a local Junior A hockey team. The addition of a prognosticating pack rat seems a bit of overkill. Anyway, here are some cold, hard facts about the chances of a ground dweller being better than Dominion Weather Stats. Over the last 30 to 40 years, the following towns had a chance of being in sun or shade as follows:
Town              % chance of     % chance of
                  seeing          groundhog
                  its shadow      accuracy

St. John's        53              41
Charlottetown     50              41
Halifax           50              42
Fredericton       48              34
Montreal          52              36
Toronto           54              29
Ottawa            48              42
Winnipeg          78              30
Regina            63              38
Edmonton          60              26
Vancouver         23              35
Whitehorse        43              42
Yellowknife       50              50
There is a bit of truth in the sun/shadow bit though. Anyone who has lived through a Canadian winter can tell you that should you see your shadow on an early February day... run for cover. It generally means that a high-pressure zone is a-buildin' and that means more cold weather a-comin'.

With respect to the animals themselves: They actually are the world's largest members of the squirrel family. They do tend to live in burrows and stock up on seeds and grasses to last the winters through. What they do not do is actually hibernate. They go into a very deep and lengthy sleep over the coldest periods found in their climes and periodically awaken to eat and, in the case of the females, to give birth. Hence, they do need to stock up, or "squirrel away", some food for the winter.

In British Columbia's Vancouver Island Mountains, there is an increasingly rare and reclusive member of the family Marmot in residence and very much in danger of extinction. The Yellow Marmot, found nowhere else in the entire world, is a victim of logging. Not in the traditional sense, as in habitat erasure, but in the loss of air cover. Perversely, modern logging practices have proven good for the replenishment of the animal's food sources but bad for the diminishment of cover it provides against airborne predators. These large (up to eight kilogram) animals are not very fast, and make themselves readily available as a food source for hawks, eagles and ravens when foraging for food in the open meadows of timber cuts. Scientists, in a desperate race to save the animals unique to this world, have initiated a captive breeding program. Early indications have shown that if there is enough money and patience thrown at the problem, there is a chance of success for the species survival.



On Sunday I profile the famous World War One ace, Billy Bishop, tell you about what's left of Uranium City, Saskatchewan, take several pot shots at Americans, discuss some statistics on television, clarify my challenge in last week's Sunday Newsletter, and list the ten longest rivers in Canada.


As you probably already know by now, Wiarton Willie did not see his shadow today, thus forecasting another six weeks of winter this year. Actually, this is only the beginning of the career of this particular Willie, as the former Wiarton Willie died two days before his big day in 1999. Until today, when he was proclaimed *the* Wiarton Willie, the new guy was known as Wee Willie.



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