In a turn-of-the-century Groundhog Day test extending over 20 years, groundhogs accurately forecast the weather eight times. On these February 2s, they predicted either six more weeks of wintry weather or an early spring.
Of course, they waffled five times.
And they were plain wrong seven times.
The adjudicators -- a few residents around Quarryville in Lancaster County, Pa. -- had formed the Slumbering Groundhog Lodge. Befitting the gravity of the day, they decked themselves out in silk top hats and canes and strode into the fields to seek a grounding burrow. Once found, they all gathered to await the sleepy animal's emergence into daylight, to analyze his every move and to report to the villagers.
Of course, the groundhog was the wrong animal. They really needed to see a badger. The legend of Feb. 2, in its original European form, held that the badger would flee into his burrow, spooked by his shadow behind him. Oddly, sunny skies forecast more winter, and cloudy skies, which don't produce shadows, forecast an early spring.
And America was the wrong country: Settlers from Germany, probably unable to spy sufficient badgers, stuck the custom on the groundhog. The principle remained the same, though. On that day, the German saying goes: "The shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable than the sun."
And, of course, February is the wrong month for most of North America's groundhogs, anyway. Feb. 2 may be a fine coming-out day for a Dixie groundhog, but what about his Dakota brother? In many parts of their wide range, across the eastern U.S. and along Canada to Alaska, he won't leave his grassy nest until March or even April. And when he does awaken from hibernation, he may have to claw his way through a yard of snow to greet the new year.
Invariably the first groundhogs are males since females and youngsters stay underground for another few weeks. During the deep sleep, they cool down from nearly 97 F to less than 40 ; their heart beat drops from more than 100 beats per minute to four, and they breathe only once every six minutes.
In truth, the private life of the groundhog, also known as the woodchuck, should deter him from ever coming out: Except for eating and sunbathing, they appear to have few pleasures at all. The sexes get together for brief mating and drawn-out squabbles. Even motherhood does not soften for long the female heart. Her maternal instinct lasts for all of about two months before her escalating bad humor drives her young from the natal nest.
Worst of all, groundhogs have no friends. Scientists describe their primary social behavior as aggressive and solitary. They have a strictly hierarchical society. Their lives are an unsettling series of chase or flee, attack or retreat. From his study of the groundhog in Pennsylvania, zoologist B. F. Bronson reports that each animal averages one act of aggression per day. "Fights are usually vicious," he says, "though brief." In the field, where they can avoid one another, only three percent of encounters end in fights. But confined in a pen, half of their meetings turn bellicose.
The hierarchy is so complete that a dominant male, like lord of the manor, wanders freely into the home burrow of a lesser male and receives neither challenge nor rebuke.
Often regarded as pests, and shot, groundhogs do a lot of hard work for humans. In their defense, groundhogs aerate and turn over topsoil: In New York State alone, they move more than 1.6 million tons of soil a year. The groundhog mound serves as a sunporch and an observation deck -- as do most porches along Mainstreet U.S.A.
The groundhog learns his place in life. But, then the East is the place of the Old Boy System, the school tie, the rigid rather obsequious hierarchy. Now, out West, in the land of hot tubs, roller derbies and surfers, the groundhogs, called marmots, are much friendlier.
The yellow-bellied marmot, who inhabits most of the western states, is a colonist. Though he keeps his distance from most members and is often aggressive, he still manages to greet his fellows maybe once every 10 hours.
The Olympic marmot, on the other hand, is utterly devoted to neighborliness. He lives on the Olympic Mountain slopes in Washington State's Olympic National Park. Infants and yearlings spend a cozy hibernation with their mother, the resident dominant male and other females in his harem.
They indulge each day in a positive orgy of visiting before heading out of their burrows for breakfast and they repeat the ritual before their mid-afternoon lunch. (They nap from noon to 3 p.m.) Marmots race from burrow to burrow, hailing or being hailed by the occupant, or any passerby for that matter. The dominant male particularly shines. He runs into almost every burrow, "making the rounds to greet or be greeted by virtually every colony member," says David Barash of the University of Washington's psychology department. "Often many times."
(Contrast this to the strain on people who meet each other down three different aisles in a supermarket. By the last encounter, at the pickle shelf, the joy of reunion has definitely soured.)
Although the marmot's Olympian familiarity usually consists of a brief nose-to-nose or nose-to-mouth hello, it often breeds contempt. The greeter can become too enthusiastic. The progression then may be something like this: nose-to-cheek, chewing of the ear, and finally, chewing the neck of the recipient. (Can you imagine that at the grocery-store meat counter?) Or the greeter may interlock his teeth with the greeted animal.
Is the recipient overwhelmed, flattered by all this attention? Actually, no. He would prefer to be the greeter. As the beneficiary of these caresses, he either ignores the initiator, says Barash, and walks past him or stands perfectly still with apparent distaste. Or he responds in kind. Or he launches a fast attack: a reprimand.
Even for marmots, the longer the greeting lasts, the faster the goodwill evaporates. Barash reports that of 467 nose-to-nose hellos, 11 percent ended in fights. So did 27 percent of 133 nose-to-cheek greetings, 61 percent of the 18 ear-chew kind -- and 100 percent of 9 neck-chew salutations.