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How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? We’ll never know because the Marmota monax’s common name (woodchuck) is not representative of this mammal’s habits or habitat, but reflects the early English pronunciation of the Cree word for this creature—wuchak. Later, this rodent acquired a common English name that suggests its burrowing habits—the groundhog.
The full name of the most famous groundhog of all is the Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinaire, otherwise known as—Punxsutawney Phil.
On Feb. 2 of every year, Phil makes his annual trek to Gobbler’s Knob, a hilltop two miles southeast of Punxsutawney, Penn., where according to a tradition started in 1887 by the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, Phil leaves the burrow (a climate controlled man-made tree stump) where he has been “hibernating” (throughout the year Phil actually lives indoors at the local library) to discover whether cold winter weather will continue. If Phil cannot see his shadow, he remains above ground, ending his hibernation. If Phil’s shadow is visible, six more weeks of cold weather will follow and he returns to his burrow.
There is no scientific evidence available to support this belief, nor to explain the claim of Phil’s Inner Circle—a group of local dignitaries responsible for caring for Phil—that although a groundhog’s average life span is six years, Phil is an astounding 122 years old and the very same groundhog that made the first weather prediction back in 1887.
Inner Circle members insist this famous weather predictor’s longevity is attributed to the love and companionship of his not-so-famous wife, Phyllis, as well as Phil’s annual practice of sipping the elixir of life—special groundhog nog that extends his life.
Not only will we never know the answer to the question, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” chances are we will never know how many groundhogs have actually portrayed Punxsutawney Phil over the past century.
This article originally appeared in the “Ask the Expert” feature of Iowa Outdoors magazine in the January/February 2009 issue.