Every February 2nd, the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania trusts their weather forecast to a small animal—a groundhog! The town’s “Groundhog Day” tradition dates back to the 1800s and involves using a groundhog, always nicknamed “Punxsutawney Phil,” to predict the coming weather. If Phil comes out of hibernation and sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, it’s said that chilly weather will continue for six more weeks, and he’ll head back to bed. If Phil doesn’t spot his shadow, it means an early spring is on the way.
While Punxsutawney Phil is more of a fun tradition than an accurate predictor of the weather, Groundhog Day events in Pennsylvania and around the United States draw national attention to the groundhog, a creature that fans of The Happy Hollisters may know by a slightly different name: the whistle-pig!
Groundhogs are marmots, or large ground squirrels. They are found all over the world and go by many different names, including woodchucks and whistle-pigs. As Pete, Pam, Holly, Ricky, and Sue Hollister learn in The Happy Hollisters and the Whistle-Pig Mystery by Jerry West, groundhogs earned this moniker from the high-pitched noises they make to alert the rest of their colony to a nearby danger. This nickname is commonly heard around New England, where The Happy Hollisters and the Whistle-Pig Mystery takes place, and where author Andrew Svenson often visited.
While it’s never been scientifically proven that groundhogs have a penchant for predicting the weather, they’re still unique animals. Unlike many other animals, groundhogs stay in the same area for the majority of their lives; in the U.S.; their range stretches from the southern states to Alaska. They live in underground holes called burrows, which can extend more than 60 feet in length and include multiple entrances and different “rooms” that link together within the tunnel. Within their burrows, they typically live in family units that include one male and two females. The male generally only visits the burrow during breeding season, leaving the two females to raise the babies.
Digging their impressive tunnels is made easier by their recognizable front teeth, or upper incisors, which they use to gnaw through dirt and other materials. The downside to these powerful teeth is that they grow about 1/16th of an inch every week! To keep their teeth short, groundhogs constantly chew on leaves or grass to wear down their teeth. They don’t typically chew on wood, despite the “woodchuck” name, which actually comes from the Algonquin word for groundhog. This means there is some sense to the classic tongue twister of “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
In Punxsutawney—and certainly in The Happy Hollisters and the Whistle-Pig Mystery—groundhogs play a key role. This Groundhog Day, join the Hollisters in learning more fun facts by reading The Happy Hollisters and the Whistle-Pig Mystery, and don’t forget to thank Phil if we have an early spring this year!