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Forecast of the Whistle Pig

February 3, 2016
BY CHUCK CLEGG - Columnist , Wetzel Chronicle

Early yesterday morning, as the winter sun touched the horizon, an important event took place. A group of noble-looking gentlemen wearing top hats pulled him from his warm den - the famous weather predicting Whistle Pig. It is said if he sees his shadow, he will return to his burrow and wait six weeks for spring to arrive. If he does not see his shadow, spring could be just around the corner. One of the men lifted the furry Whistle Pig high over his head and proclaimed to the thousands of on lookers, "Phil," (Phil is his given name) "has not seen his shadow." We all can now rest easy with the spring forecast out of the way. As to Phil, he will retreat to his warm burrow, glad the annual silly production is over for another year.

If you are wondering why I call this furry rodent a Whistle Pig, I guess it comes from when I grew up in the country. The small creature that lives underground ventures out of his den to feed and sun himself. At the first hint of danger he quickly retreats underground. A weakness of the Whistle Pig is the fact he is very curious. When alarmed the Whistle Pig sounds a high pitch whistle to warn others. The big problem for the Whistle Pig is, he wants to know what the problem may be. He sticks his head out to see and . . . Well, lets say hunters love to whistle.

Most people know the brown animal as a groundhog. He is also known as a Woodchuck. Groundhogs range from the southern end of Alaska to the upper tip of several southern states. In the western grass lands, prairie dogs and marmots, which are a smaller version of the groundhog are wide spread. Ranchers considered them a major nuisance due to their digging of burrows. Dozens of deep holes in what are known as prairie dog towns create danger to grazing animals.

Both the United States and Canada celebrate the annual day. The first report reference to the day was in 1841 when a Pennsylvania store keeper recorded in his diary a reference to Groundhog Day.

In 1887, the editor of the local paper in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania saw an opportunity to promote the town with the introduction of Groundhog Day. His paper proclaimed that the town's ground hog was the official "Groundhog Day meteorologist." A tradition that still remains today. Annually 40,000 people attend the February 2nd event. The traditional language spoken is Pennsylvania German dialect. If you speak any other language you are fined 10 a word.

Other towns and communities have tried to pull attention away from Punxsutawney over the years, but still the town retains the official title, Home of Punxsutawney Phil. People from far and wide travel to visit the town and see the famous groundhog each year. There are dozens of other groundhogs that predict the arrival of spring, but Phil seems to be the only one that makes the national news. Here in West Virginia at the French Creek Game Preserve, we have our own spring predictor. His name is French Creek Freddie.

Other than Phil, most groundhogs are considered to be pests. They dig holes in your fields and discover your garden the night before you planned on harvesting your beans and corn. Most generally people just don't want them around. This problem is easy to remedy, if you just remember to whistle.

I wonder how many people today can say they have eaten groundhog. Back in the sixties I tried the dark meat several times. If you prepare a young one in the early fall, that was quickly cleaned and soaked overnight in milk, it tastes just like chicken . . . well an old chicken. There were times in this country when the rodent was not an uncommon meal. They are not dirty animals. They prefer to eat clover and grasses and occasionally your garden vegetables. They clean themselves regularly while lying in the sun. We have come to a place in society where our meats and poultry must be sold on the shelves of our local market. You won't find groundhog or swamp rabbit on the store shelves.

We have become very refined in our selection of meats for our tables. It has been many years since I tasted wild rabbit, raccoon, squirrel, groundhog, grouse and swamp rabbit. I'll bet many of you don't know what swamp rabbit is. Back when I was young, I trapped muskrats in the creek. A prime hide would sell for $1.25. To a young boy of 13 that was good money. I would take the fresh muskrat meat to Joe McCaskey and he would roll it in flour, throw in some onions and fry in hot lard. It may have been a rat by name but was good by taste.

How often is Phil's prediction right? Well, it depends on who you ask. As far as I can find out, the figure is somewhere around 35 percent. That's not bad. That means Phil got it right at least a third of the time. I'm not sure the local weatherperson could achieve that percentage predicting six weeks ahead of time.

Groundhogs live and average of ten years. And the Punxsutawney celebration has been going on for the last 129 years. That means over a dozen Whistle Pigs have felt the responsibility of predicting the coming of spring. I would bet if Phil were given the chance, he would stay in the warm den until spring flowers were blooming. I just hope when the Easter Bunny passes by he's whistling a tune welcoming spring. You know that darned old Whistle Pig, he will stick his head out and say to the world, "Has spring returned" Through the Lens?

 
 
 

 

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