Weather prognosticators predict longer winter

By Dustin Brown

The winter that hardly even began will get a chance to redeem itself with another month and a half of cold weather, the borough’s two furry weather forecasters predicted last weekend.

Flushing Meadows Phil and Corona Kate, the two prairie dogs whose shadow dances have offered weather insight for the past eight years in Queens, stepped timidly into the sunlight a little past 11 a.m. Saturday. Their shadows were not far behind.

“The prairie dogs saw their shadows, which means there will be six more weeks of winter to come,” announced Robin Dalton, director of the Queens Zoo, where dozens of children and their parents gathered for the borough’s eighth annual Groundhog’s Day celebration.

The prediction means Queens residents should brace themselves for cold weather that lasts until mid-March — “which is when winter ends anyway,” then city Parks Commissioner Henry Stern was quick to point out.

The event was one of the last official duties for Stern, who on Monday handed over stewardship of the parks to Adrian Benepe, the new commissioner appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Perhaps the prescience of Phil and Kate was just a response to the sudden chill that gripped the city. After a string of unseasonably warm days in a winter that was already considered mild, the temperature dropped to around freezing Saturday morning — just in time for the animals’ dalliance with their shadows.

Borough President Helen Marshall had the honor of tugging a red, white and blue ribbon to open the front door of the prairie dogs’ model home, setting them free to roam an enclosed lawn made of red carpet. Dozens of children pressed their faces against the plexiglass wall, watching the animals twitch their noses, stand on their hind legs and scurry around their small stage.

“The prairie dog was sniffing my nose,” said Bobby Gavlik, 8, a third-grader from Connecticut whose father, Queens Zoo Operations Manager Bob Gavlik, designed the model house from which the animals emerged.

Turning to prairie dogs on Groundhog’s Day proved a bit disconcerting for many in attendance, who could not help fumbling to remember what to call them.

Even the borough president had to be prompted, describing the pair as “our very own groundhogs” before correcting herself to say “ground dogs” and finally “prairie dogs.”

“I didn’t know it would be a prairie dog,” said Caroline Kazdan of Fresh Meadows, who arrived late with her children. “That’s kind of funny.”

But using prairie dogs for the centuries-old custom of predicting winter’s end may prove wiser than turning to groundhogs, who are abruptly awakened from hibernation to render their predictions.

Indeed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Staten Island Chuck failed to see his shadow early Saturday morning, rendering a decidedly different opinion than Phil and Kate.

“They really don’t have any idea what’s going on,” Dalton said of the groundhogs. “They’re still in a sleepy haze.”

Prairie dogs, on the other hand, linger in underground tunnels during the winter and “come up regularly to check on the weather,” according to Dalton.

They even “get weather forecasts from relatives in the West,” Dalton said with a sincerity that made his improbable claim difficult to dispute.

Although they are now seasoned weather forecasters, Phil and Kate still experienced their share of stage fright, constantly scurrying back toward the shuttered door to their shelter, where bits of food awaited.

Even veteran performers have their weaknesses.

“They like to get back in and nibble,” Bob Gavlik said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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