Let's Reminisce: Why ask a groundhog
By Jerry Lincecum
Feb 10, 2020
Print this page
Email this article

Punxsutawney Phil gets way too much publicity, and flipping a coin would be more accurate than his forecasts.  So let’s consider some alternative weather prophets reported by the Wall Street Journal.  There’s a 10-pound Chihuahua who has become a rival Groundhog Day-style weather forecaster, delivering the all-important prediction as to whether winter will keep going for six weeks or spring will arrive early.

While she is definitely a contrast to Phil, the groundhog from the Pennsylvania town that has become world famous for its celebration of the Feb. 2 holiday, that is the point, says the organizer of an annual event in Harrisburg, PA.  Their event takes place on the Saturday after Groundhog Day.

In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, they substitute Lucy the Lobster for a groundhog, as a way to promote the local delicacy as part of a winter tourism campaign. (Lucy survives regardless of her forecast.)

The lobster is set on top of a wooden trap. Much like Phil, Lucy bases her prediction on whether she sees her shadow.

In the Texas town of Bee Cave, located outside Austin, an armadillo named Bee Cave Bob does the forecasting job. His prediction is based on whether he chooses to stay outdoors (signaling an early spring) or seeks shelter (meaning winter will stick around).

Ralph Fisher, one of the Texas organizers, says they are trying to give an animal known and loved throughout the state its due. “Why should we rely on a rodent from Pennsylvania to predict our weather in Texas?” he says.

Bill Murray, who starred in the hit movie “Groundhog Day,” sees nothing wrong in all this tweaking of tradition, saying “the more merriment the merrier.” He is especially pleased by the idea of a lobster forecaster.

“I’m a lobster person. I appreciate lobsters and I respect them,” he says.

In Buffalo, NY, their Groundhog Day celebration features a groundhog named Buffalo Bert, and his event is held the weekend before Feb. 2.  Why do it early? “We don’t need to wait. We give the best prediction and the first prediction,” he says.

This year, Buffalo Bert predicted six more weeks of winter and some locals, known for their love of the cold, actually welcomed his forecast.

Mount Joy, a Pennsylvania town located about 185 miles from Punxsutawney, has been getting in on the Feb. 2 action with a bonnet-sporting groundhog puppet, Mount Joy Minnie.  Planners in Mount Joy say there is a practical reality behind the choice of a puppet, since there is always the fear of a live groundhog getting loose and running headlong into traffic during the event.

For example, back in 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio lost control of the groundhog that was being used in an annual Groundhog Day ceremony at the Staten Island Zoo. The animal fell to the ground and died a week later.  The mayor has refused to handle any groundhogs since then.

In Punxsutawney, there are no plans to retire Phil. Nor is there much concern about the competition from other cities. Their event, which dates back officially to 1887, draws as many as 40,000 revelers, many from outside the state, if not the country. It has become a significant boost to the economy, with stores selling all manner of Phil-themed souvenirs.

Despite his celebrity, Phil has a poor record when it comes to predicting the weather. One climatologist who has studied the question says Phil’s forecasts have been accurate only about 39% of the time, based on historical data. “Phil would do better flipping a coin,” she says.

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com