Every February 2, as famously portrayed in Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day movie (1993), Punxsutawney Phil, the Groundhog, is pulled out of his burrow and asked for his much-ballyhooed prediction: will spring arrive early this year, or procrastinate until March 21? The guru in charge of consulting this prognosticator of prognosticators claims to be translating from "Groundhogese" when revealing Phil's mystic message to his adoring human audience.
Presumably, Punxsutawney Phil tells the guru whether or not he has seen his shadow in Groundhogese. Then the guru informs us ordinary mortals of the prediction, translating it into English.
On February 2, 2017, the Groundhog did see his shadow, thereby predicting six more weeks of winter.
While most of the Groundhog Day movie was shot in Woodstock, Illinois, in real life, Punxsutawney, PA is the home of Phil and of the Groundhog Day activities of which this furry oracle is the center. It is also home to the "Punxsutawney Groundhog Club" that pays homage to Phil. And Bill Cooper, President of the "Inner Circle" of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, is officially listed as the Groundhogese expert responsible for the translations from Groundhogese into English every Groundhog Day -- just like the Groundhog Day movie's guru. I do not jest; the following comes from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, itself:
Bill is the man charged with the daunting task of translating Phil's message in Groundhogese on Gobbler's Knob so that the forecast can be accurately delivered to Phil's followers.
If ever there were a personage who could answer the immortal question, "How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" then President Cooper would be the man.
Predict Damage in Your Yard by Knowing Woodchuck Sign Language
"Woodchuck" (Marmota monax) and "whistle pig" are other names for this creature, a rodent related to squirrels. And while this rodent's wood chucking abilities shall remain a mystery to all who are not fluent in the Groundhog Day language of Groundhogese, many a gardener is all too aware of the woodchuck's ability to damage a garden. It thus behooves anyone considering gardening in woodchuck territory to learn at least the sign language of woodchucks, if not Groundhogese itself. For, fortunately, gardeners don't have to communicate directly with woodchucks. It is enough for the gardener simply to be able to recognize woodchuck sign language. If you recognize the signs, then you can make accurate predictions about future woodchuck incursions (and prevent the resulting damage to your plants).
So don't be like Bill Murray's character (Phil Connors) in the Groundhog Day movie and ignore the signs that are all around you. For if you do, your garden, like the protagonist in the movie, will have no future.
Through a sign language readily understood by wise gardeners, the woodchucks, themselves translate all the Groundhogese of concern to gardeners into tangible signs in your yard:
- Woodchuck Sign Language: A 10"-12" hole appears in the ground in your backyard or under your shed with mounds of dirt outside it.
- Translation Into English: "A woodchuck lives here."
- Woodchuck Sign Language: A cucumber in your garden has had a good-sized bite taken out of it.
- Translation Into English: "Woodchucks like to eat vegetables."
- Woodchuck Sign Language: The feathery tops of the carrots in your garden have been mowed down.
- Translation Into English: "Woodchucks don't just eat vegetables. We like to eat green succulent things, too, whether growing wild or in your garden."
- Woodchuck Sign Language: Your young fruit tree is being damaged by something gnawing at its trunk.
- Translation Into English: "Remember, we're rodents. That means we have to gnaw to keep our teeth from growing too long. When I picture a perfect tooth-filer, what I see is your tender young fruit tree."
- Woodchuck Sign Language: The rat poison that you set out to try to kill the woodchuck that's been raiding your garden hasn't been touched -- and you continue to observe damage in your garden.
- Translation Into English: "You'll have to do better than that. I'm a woodchuck, not a rat. I'm not stupid enough to eat poison. If you're going to set a trap for me, you'd better bait it with the same foods I'm raiding from your garden."
Assuming that you are grasping the essentials of woodchuck sign language, on Page 2 we'll have a look at strategies for woodchuck pest control in the garden. If you fail to take effective control measures against these garden pests, you'll find yourself reenacting the Groundhog Day movie in your own yard. And while I adore that particular movie, personally, this is not a reenactment I recommend....
Ignoring the signs communicated by woodchucks, AKA the "groundhogs" (also spelled "ground hogs") introduced on Page 1, regarding their presence and intentions can spell disaster for your garden. As surely as Phil Connors had no future in "Groundhog Day," doomed by his unawareness to relive the same day over and over, so your garden will have no future if you pay no heed to this garden pest's sign language.
Your garden will be trapped in a perpetual Groundhog Day of destruction, raided at will by the marauding rodents. No, you must learn to read the signs -- and practice effective groundhog control.
The burrows of groundhogs will be the focus of our groundhog control measures, so we had best gain some idea first of how woodchuck burrows are used. Groundhogs hibernate in winter, during which time they do not stir from their burrows. The same burrow is also used for mating (which occurs just after hibernation ends) and raising young. A woodchuck burrow will often have one main entrance and one emergency escape entrance or spy-hole.
Sometimes groundhogs have a summer burrow that is distinct from the burrow used for hibernation, mating and rearing of young. Such a summer burrow would most likely be located in the middle of a grassy area. Meanwhile, the burrow used during winter and spring would be located in a wooded or brushy area nearby.
Regardless of whether one burrow exists for all seasons or two distinct burrows exist, in summer and fall the burrow is where groundhogs sleep at night and hide from predators. Groundhogs are solitary animals, and the young are kicked out of the nest by around July 4.
Once you've determined that you have a pest problem with groundhogs in your garden, you'll need to consider possible groundhog control solutions, which include the following:
- Frightening groundhogs away from the garden with motion devices.
- Discouraging groundhogs with repellent smells or tastes.
- Fencing groundhogs out of the garden.
- Bringing out the heavy artillery: tossing gas cartridges into the groundhogs' burrows, etc.
- Live-trapping groundhogs as they exit their burrows and relocating them to an area far-removed from your garden (illegal in some states).
Option #4 above may be unacceptable in all but rural districts. Option #1 simply entails installing pinwheels or other devices around garden areas to frighten groundhogs away (groundhogs are timid, and the motion will bother them). In relation to this strategy, I should make note of a preventive measure you can take. In order to reduce the chances of having to deal with groundhogs, deprive them of areas that have tall grass, tall weeds such as Japanese knotweed (which is pictured above when it is just starting out; it gets much bigger) or brush piles; these will only serve as hideouts for groundhogs, from which they can launch attacks upon your garden.
Timid animals such as groundhogs may never take up residence near your garden in the first place, if sufficient cover is lacking.
Repellent Smells or Tastes
Epsom salts can be sprinkled on the vegetation and fruits of your garden plants to render them foul-tasting to groundhogs. The good news about this strategy is that Epsom salts will also help some of your garden plants to grow better. But the bad news is that rain will wash off the Epsom salts, meaning that you will need to make repeated applications. Another strategy that suffers from the same drawback is discouraging groundhogs with foul-smelling agents such as ammonia. Ammonia-soaked rags can be strewn along the perimeter of your garden, forming a stinky barrier to repel groundhogs. But even ammonia's smell fades eventually and a re-application will be necessary.
Fences such as chicken-wire fences can provide a more permanent solution to your groundhog pest problem. Be aware of two factors, however: groundhogs can climb over your fences, and groundhogs can tunnel under your fences. To discourage the former, make your fences 3'-4' high. To foil tunneling attempts, the University of Missouri Extension advises:
"The buried portion of the fence should be bent at a 90-degree angle, 1 foot below the surface, with the bottom of the fence pointing away from the garden. This design discourages burrowing if it is started at the fence line."
Such a fence can be supplemented with an electric hot-shot wire. Install the wire 4"-5" away from the fence, all along the outside. The electric wire should stand 4"-5" high.
For many gardeners, live-trapping groundhogs as they exit their burrows is the preferred method of pest control. Page 3 deals in detail with live-trapping....
Having groundhogs day and night in the garden munching on plants is as bad a nightmare as Phil Connors had in the movie, "Groundhog Day." We've already looked at a few pest-control measures on Page 2. But whether it be for groundhog control, rabbit control or controlling most other garden pests, live-trapping is one of the more interesting of the possible solutions. If you can relocate the groundhogs five miles from your garden, this solution has the advantage of being permanent, without your having to kill these cute little "woodchucks." A bonus is that you'll be able to get an up-close look at the woodchucks before relocating them.
This experience can be particularly rewarding for children.
There are, however, a number of objections to this strategy, of which I'll mention three. As mentioned on the prior page, one is that relocating animals is illegal in some states. Another problem with this strategy can be in finding an acceptable relocation destination. Regarding the latter problem, one option is to find a private landowner who wouldn't mind having a resident groundhog (in fact, non-gardeners who love wildlife may relish the idea of being able to observe groundhogs grazing on the landscape). As long as you get permission first, you could also consider a state wildlife management area; but don't count on a favorable reception for your proposal. A third objection is that, while more humane, perhaps, than killing animals outright, relocation is far from being entirely humane: many relocated animals fail to adapt and end up dying in their new homes.
Havahart Animal Traps, Humane Society, When to Trap Groundhogs
A live trap is also referred to as a "box trap" or "wire trap." Indeed, it is essentially a wire box with door(s) and tripping mechanism. The tripping mechanism is baited, and the door(s) rigged so as to close behind the unwitting prey, caught red-pawed over the tripping mechanism.
The live traps with which I am most familiar are the Havahart animal traps. In some cases you may be able to borrow a similar trap from your local humane society.
Late winter and early spring are excellent times for trapping groundhogs. The groundhogs alive in early spring are the adults that will produce the next generation of groundhogs later in the spring. In other words, catching one groundhog in March could mean eliminating 5 groundhogs in June (groundhogs typically bear 4 offspring).
But early trapping has tactical advantages as well. Consider the landscape in March: it is relatively barren. This means you'll be able to locate groundhog burrows more easily, since obfuscating vegetation will be absent. It also means that the groundhogs will be more desperate for food, due to the same absence of vegetation. Your bait will be much more irresistible on the barren March landscape than on a June landscape brimming with both wild and garden greenery. This is the ultimate tactical advantage in trapping.
Bait your trap with salad greens, whole kernel corn, carrot tops, carrots, apples, potato, beans, pea pods or cucumber.
How to Trap Groundhogs
Locating the groundhog's burrow is important because the best place to set up your trap is just outside the burrow hole (at most 5'-10' away from it). You might as well try to get him at the source, rather than hoping to determine the path he'll take to arrive at your garden. Installing guide logs at either side of the path between the burrow hole and the trap will help funnel the groundhog into the trap. Another tactic to make the trap more approachable is to conceal the trap with canvas or vegetation. At the very least, Havahart recommends that you sully a newly-purchased trap, in order to divest it of its gleam.
If trapping in summer, when groundhogs can afford to be choosier about bait, purchase a product called "woodchuck lure" from your local farmer's supply store or trapping supply store. Sprinkle drops of woodchuck lure in a path from the burrow's hole to the trap, enticing the pest in. Apply additional drops of the lure to the bait itself.
If your trap catches an animal, the victim may or may not be the one that you intended to catch. That's part of the beauty of this pest control method: you can encounter some interesting wildlife in the process! When you release an animal from your trap, exercise caution, no matter how small the animal. Remember, the animal at this time is in an extremely agitated state. Its actions will not be entirely predictable. Bear in mind also that a rodent who can chew through wood could deliver a serious bite to your hand!
And if it is a woodchuck that I find rattling the walls of my trap, I'll have some kindly advice for my disgruntled convict. I'll exhort him to take his cue from that famed groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, the prognosticator of prognosticators, and begin a new career -- predicting the weather. "No more plundering of gardens," I'll say. "There's no future in it."
But speaking of Punxsutawney Phil, perhaps you have wondered what all the hoopla is over Groundhog Day. Is it really about a large rodent predicting the weather? Or does it have a deeper significance? Continue onto Page 4 for a look into the origin of Groundhog Day....
Having finished our assessment of pest-control options against groundhogs on Page 3, we can conclude with a look at the holiday, Groundhog Day, confident that our rodent friend won't over-run our gardens this year. Let me say right away that I have no illusions as to how the majority of folks feel about this celebration: they consider it inane. That fact in no way dissuades me, however, from attaching a certain significance to February 2.
Before explaining why, let's explore the origin of Groundhog Day by taking a look at Imbolc, Saint Brigid's Day and Candlemas Day.
Imbolc and Saint Brigid's Day
In its earliest incarnation, Groundhog Day was Imbolc, a pagan celebration associated with fertility and weather divination. The word, Imbolc is Gaelic, the language of the Celts. There is a strong association between Imbolc and Brigid, a Celtic fire and fertility goddess. When the pagan holidays were transformed into Catholic equivalents, two new holidays emerged from Imbolc. One, Saint Brigid's Day (a.k.a. Saint Bridget's Day), was celebrated on February 1. Saint Brigid's Day honored an Irish saint, named after the Celtic goddess, who was a contemporary of Saint Patrick's.
The second holiday deriving from Imbolc was Candlemas Day and was celebrated on February 2 (Groundhog Day). Candlemas was the feast of Mary's purification and was marked by a candle procession.
The ties between purification rituals and the month of February also hark back to the pagan era. Indeed, our very word, "February," which derives from Latin, unmistakably designates the month as a time for purification (februa means "expiatory offerings"). The Lupercalia, a pagan Roman purification ritual, took place in February.
But how did a groundhog become the symbol for a holiday that was marked by a candle procession? Well, the Romans, for instance, had celebrated a rough equivalent to our Groundhog Day in early February -- only a hedgehog was in charge of the weather divination, not a groundhog. And such beliefs survived the Christianization of Europe (going "underground," if you will), attaching themselves to Candlemas Day as folklore. European settlers in North America kept the pagan tradition alive, but substituted the native groundhog for the European hedgehog. Clearly, Imbolc and the older traditions have won out: today in North America, almost everyone in the general public has heard of "Groundhog Day," while mention of "Candlemas Day" would generally draw expressions of puzzlement!
Most people have now distanced themselves from fertility rites, purification rituals and weather divination (well, except for meteorologists, perhaps!). Nonetheless, on some level, don't we still intuitively associate fertility and purification with spring?
Nor can we help but spend our winters speculating on spring's arrival. If hope had a scent, it would be the smell in the air on a warm February day. On Page 5 we move from its origins in Imbolc, St. Brigid's Day and Candlemas Day to the modern significance of Groundhog Day....
People think they know the meaning of our modern holiday on February 2, Groundhog Day, the origins of which were presented on Page 4. If the Groundhog comes out of his winter quarters and sees his shadow, then he will return to his burrow for another six weeks, i.e., on the spring equinox. This is how Groundhog Day turns out most years, namely, with a prediction that good weather will not arrive till the calendar says it's time for the spring equinox.
But if Groundhog Day is cloudy, then the Groundhog will remain out, since cloud cover on Groundhog Day is supposed to be an indication of prematurely good weather (just how prematurely is not spelled out by the tradition).
At this juncture, perhaps you're in the scoffer's camp, shrugging your shoulders with a "so what?" regarding Groundhog Day and its vernal prognostications. Phil Connors, Bill Murray's character in the movie, "Groundhog Day," started out in this camp, before his transition (the deeper, true meaning of the Groundhog Day holiday lies in transition, as I argue below). Indeed, when pressed for his own prediction on when winter will end, Connors sarcastically gives the date of the spring equinox -- March 21. It's rather arbitrary, after all, to choose a groundhog to play weather forecaster, rather than some other animal; nor should the weather on one day (February 2) weigh so heavily in a 6-week forecast.
But such objections utterly miss the point behind Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day is our only holiday that focuses squarely on weather. It occurs at a time when weather occupies Northerners' thoughts more thoroughly than at any other time of the year. We know we're still stuck in winter, but enough of the winter has elapsed that we feel we can now justifiably look ahead to the promise of the spring equinox.
More than any other holiday, Groundhog Day is the "looking-ahead" holiday, a holiday of transition. We're not so much celebrating the day at hand, February 2, as we are a day that is on our horizon, the spring equinox. The spring equinox is simply being celebrated ahead of time, as Groundhog Day, on February 2. Asking us to bottle up our hopes until three weeks in March have passed would be unreasonable, don't you think?
This interpretation of the real meaning behind Groundhog Day accounts for all the talk about "forecasting" on February 2. For it isn't the Groundhog who's looking into the future on Groundhog Day, it is we. And whether it arrives early, late or on-time, this is one prediction that inevitably will prove true: good weather will arrive, one way or another. At least it always has. And on Groundhog Day we take solace in that fact.
If you conceive of Groundhog Day as the "looking-ahead" holiday, par excellence, suddenly you realize that its occurrence in early February is not so arbitrary, after all.
Although we mark the passage of a year's time using calendars, I may be able to illustrate my point better by referring analogously to another means of measuring time: the clock. Here's what I mean...
Let's say we wanted to mark off the progress of the earth's annual revolution around the sun using the twelve divisions on the face of a clock, as if we were measuring, instead, the passage within a single day from dawn to dusk (6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.). In this analogy, the winter solstice corresponds to dawn and would be at 6:00 a.m., the summer solstice at 12:00 noon. By this logic, the spring equinox and autumnal equinox would occur at 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., respectively, working clockwise. At 6:00 p.m. we would have come full-circle: it would be dusk, and we'd have as little sunlight as we had started out with, at dawn.
The period that concerns us is that between the winter solstice and the spring equinox (that is, between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m.), the time when good weather is so close, and yet so far away. If we looked for the midpoint between these two junctures, it would be 7:30 a.m. on our imaginary clock -- about February 2 (or a few days after), according to the calendar. It would be right around Groundhog Day, in other words.
Yes, Groundhog Day stands at one of the eight major junctures of the year's passing. By the time February 2 arrives, we've already completed the most difficult portion of our ascent out of the pit of winter's darkest days, standing half of the way to the longed-for spring equinox. The future looks bright as we survey it from our Groundhog Day burrows -- and nothing can overshadow our optimism.