Gobbler's Knob, Tophats, and Groundhogs: The Story of Punxsatawney Phil and His Many Imposters

Jan 30, 2020

Throughout the year, holidays are celebrated based on religion, veterans, notable historical figures, and new beginnings. This February, we celebrate the only holiday on the American calendar dedicated to a large ground squirrel. Land Between the Lakes lead naturalist, John Pollpeter, visits Sounds Good to discuss both the history of Groundhog Day and the animal for which it's named. 

"It's funny, I always joke when I do a program on groundhogs...we have holidays based on religions...fighting men and women...the fourth of July. I always ask people, why do we have this holiday on the calendar about a large rodent? I had to research it myself," Pollpeter laughs. 

"There are some religious aspects to it," Pollpeter explains. "Groundhog Day falls on February 2nd, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The Celts used this as a springtime festival. As with a lot of pagan things, it got incorporated into Christian beliefs. The northern Europeans incorporated it into their holiday for the celebration of Jesus going to the Holy Temple for the first time when he was just a baby. They called it Candlemas."

"During that time period, some of the things they incorporated was that on a sunny day, which is normally a colder, drier day in the winter, if you saw your shadow, that meant more six weeks of winter (forty days, basically). A lot of times, they would incorporate it with animals that'd be hibernating at that time. In Europe, the animals they'd use were hedgehogs. Fast forward to the 18th and 19th centuries, these same northern Europeans, Germans, migrated to Pennsylvania. They still celebrate this holiday called Candlemas. They looked around and didn't find any hedgehogs, so they adopted the groundhog, which does pop up around the February 2nd time period. If it saw its shadow on a sunny day, that meant six more weeks of winter. They celebrated the first Groundhog Day in 1887 in Punxsutawney, PA."

Many people outside of the Pennsylvania region might be more familiar with the 1993 film with Bill Murray, Groundhog DayA lot of the traditions shown in the movie - the tophats, Gobbler's Knob, pulling the groundhog out - are actually practiced today in PA. 

Punxsutawney Phil, the name given to the groundhog pulled out of its burrow each February, is right "about 40% of the time," Pollpeter explains. While an average life span of a groundhog in the wild is around six years, the legend of Punxsutawney Phil is continued through a collective suspension of disbelief where participants agree that there is only one true Punxsutawney Phil - all other groundhogs are imposters. According to tradition, this same groundhog has survived the hundreds of years since the first celebration in 1887 by drinking 'groundhog punch,' or the 'elixir of life.' 

While we don't often associate groundhogs with squirrels found scaling trees in the backyard, they are "our largest squirrel," Pollpeter says. "It does climb trees. They can swim. It's about 8 to 15 pounds. Sometimes when people come to the Nature Station, they'll say they saw a beaver in a tree...it was actually a groundhog." Groundhogs are classified as ground squirrels, similar to chipmunks and prairie dogs. 

"They're an important part of our ecosystem," Pollpeter continues. "We don't think of them that way very much, [but] one of the things they do in their natural environment is punch holes in the ground with their burrows. Prairie systems have very thick root systems that make it hard for other animals to make homes. By having groundhogs in a prairie ecosystem, what you're doing is providing homes for a lot of other animals, like a woodpecker provides homes in the woods for bluebirds and screech owls."

Groundhogs are "good neighbors for fellow wildlife," Pollpeter says, "if you're a box turtle or an eastern cottontail rabbit, maybe a snake or a fox or a skunk, groundhogs are your best friends. They provide a lot of homes for those animals that are able to live in that ecosystem." However, this neighborly hospitality is not extended to their own kind. "Prairie dogs have these large towns, and they're very social. Groundhogs do not. Groundhogs tend to like to be by themselves. You can see several in a field, but if you look at where their burrows are, they're always going to their own separate burrows. They're not as friendly neighbors to each other."

Groundhogs can be found throughout the Land Between the Lakes area, but the celebratory removal of the large rodent from its winter home is left to the tuxedo and tophat-clad Punxsutawney citizens. "The thing about groundhogs during February 2nd is it is the worst time to handle a groundhog. They are in the worst mood and the most aggressive mood that you'll see in that time period. It's mating season, so their only concern is finding a female. They don't care who you are. They're very territorial and aggressive towards you. They don't like to be handled in that time period."

That said, Punxsatawney Phil will make his appearance this coming Sunday, February 2nd, handled by professionals who know how to work around a grouchy groundhog. For more information on the celebration and events leading up to it, click here. For more information on Land Between the Lakes or the Woodlands Nature Station, visit the LBL website