By Laura Rahill
What do Punxsutawney Phil (Pennsylvania), General Beauregard Lee (Georgia) and Staten Island Chuck (New York) have in common? They are all famous American groundhogs.
Groundhogs, or woodchucks, are the largest members of the squirrel family. This mammal is one of 14 species of marmots, a large, burrowing rodent typically living in mountainous areas.
After the first frost of the winter, these animals hibernate until spring. This hibernation resembles more of a coma, where the animal’s heart rate decreases dramatically and its body temperature plunges to a few degrees above freezing.
The groundhog emerges from its hibernation every year in early spring, which gave way to the popular American custom of Groundhog Day, held every Feb. 2.
The tradition is based on the belief that if a groundhog sees its shadow on that day, it will retreat back into its burrow, indicating an omen of six more weeks of winter. If the day is cloudy and therefore shadow-less, the groundhog will stay above ground, signalling the onset of spring.
Although Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvanian groundhog, is probably the most famous at supposedly 127 years old, New York has Staten Island Chuck, which has been predicting the weather for 32 years. Chuck has an accuracy rate of more than 80 percent, according to the Staten Island Zoo in Barrett Park, where Chuck resides.
The zoo uses a simple formula to determine if Chuck’s prognostication is accurate. The staff will follow the weather for two months after Groundhog Day Sunday and track how many days are warmer or atypical for the season. An atypical day has a temperature above 40 degrees.
Chuck’s prediction is based on whether there are more warm days than cold days, so more warm days means it is spring, but more cold days means it is still winter.
In past years, the Queens Zoo has joined the fun, pressing its prairie dogs into service as weathermen, but all eyes in the city will be on Staten Island and the real thing this year.
Thousands of people will attend the event Sunday as they do every year. It is not uncommon for the mayor to attend this annual ritual. Last year, however, Mayor Michael Bloomberg opted to skip the sighting, which meant then-City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was left with the honor of greeting Chuck.
Many suspect Bloomberg snubbed the event due to a longstanding grudge the former mayor had against Chuck. The bad karma originated back in 2009, when Chuck bit Bloomberg’s finger after being roused from his hibernation by the mayor. After that ungracious welcome, the Bloomberg wore special thick gloves to prevent further incidents.
This year is a chance, however, for Chuck to start fresh with the new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio. Due to probable Super Bowl commitments the same day, we can only speculate if de Blasio will be in attendance. If so, hopefully he can get a loan of Bloomberg’s Chuck-proof gloves.