No shadows today: Maine’s groundhogs will be sleeping in

In Montana, Christine Maher studied pronghorn antelope. When she moved to Portland for a faculty job at the University of Southern Maine, Maher, a biologist, started looking for a new animal with similar characteristics. Something with an unpredictable, independent streak.

Eighteen years ago, she started studying groundhogs.

Each summer, she paints them with black hair dye to tell them apart and names them in themes. There was the year of the car (Thunderbird, Blazer), the year of Shakespeare (Lady Macbeth, Hamlet), the year of the periodic table (Cobalt, Carbon.)

Maher knows many things about the mighty groundhog. Or mighty woodchuck. Same thing.

They have distinctive personalities. They can climb trees. But no, they cannot predict the weather.

“And I’ve never noticed them to be afraid of their shadows,” Maher said.

While Punxsutawney Phil may be basking in — or hiding from — the spotlight today, “most of the time, at least the woodchucks in Maine have the good sense to still be hibernating at this time of year,” she said.

Maher studies groundhogs at the Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, which has a population of 20 to 25. Each summer, she and students trap them, re-dye them and test for things such as how docile or aggressive each one is, how curious they are and what they think of that groundhog in the mirror.

“Some animals will interact with their image, go up and paw it,” she said. “Others are hiding, getting as far away from that image as they can.”

Here are four things you may not know about groundhogs:

1. They bed down early.

Adults go into hibernation anytime from early- to mid-September, according to Maher, as soon as they’re fat enough.

Juveniles stay up for a few more weeks of eating and typically start hibernating in early October.

2. They can climb.

Maher has spotted young ones 6 to 10 feet up in trees.

“They’re in the squirrel family, believe it or not,” she said.

3. They can experience failure to launch.

Half of the young groundhogs at Gilsland Farm leave after a year, but half don’t.

“A lot of that has to do with environmental conditions and whether or not there’s vacancy in the territories around them, but I joke that it can sort of explain why somebody’s 30-year-old son is still living in their basement,” Maher said. “Why haven’t they left home and why haven’t they dispersed? It’s all about the costs of leaving and the benefits of staying. That can help us understand some of that aspect of human behavior, too.”

For those who stay, Mom doesn’t make it easy.

“What we’re starting to see, different personalities affect who stays and who goes, in terms of how well you can get along with others and things like that, because that’s what it takes,” Maher said. “If you’re going to stick in your home range, Mom may chase you around a little bit. You have to be persistent.”

4. Exactly why they get up when they get up is a mystery.

Male groundhogs in Maine are due to wake up in two to three weeks, followed by females a week or two later.

“It’s not temperature — it’s not daylight for sure because they’re below ground; it’s dark down there,” Maher said. “It’s like they have a little clock inside them that gets set when they enter hibernation and the alarm goes off in the spring and they come out.”

Well, all except Phil, who gets no say in whether or not he comes out on Groundhog Day.

“I have mixed feelings about all of that, the show that they put on and the woodchuck,” she said. “It’s an interesting reason why we do it in terms of the folklore behind it because it’s so much tied in with pagan rituals of this marking halfway between winter and spring seasons.”

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UPDATE: PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (AP) — The handlers of Pennsylvania’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, say the furry rodent has failed to see his shadow, meaning he has “predicted” an early spring.

Members of the top hat-wearing Inner Circle announced the “forecast” at sunrise, just before 7:30 a.m. Tuesday.

A German legend has it that if a furry rodent sees his shadow on Feb. 2, winter will last another six weeks. If not, spring comes early.

In reality, Phil’s prediction is decided ahead of time by the group on Gobbler’s Knob, about 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Records going back to 1887 show Phil has now predicted more winter 102 times while forecasting an early spring just 18 times. There are no records for the remaining years.

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