Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is on its way, when dozens of towns across the country look to local groundhogs to determine how long winter weather will wait around. With the meteorological swings DuPage County has experienced this season, surely no one would blame local groundhogs if they rejected the whole weather-predicting business and stayed in their underground dens on their big day. And they could count on the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County to support their right to hibernate in peace.
      Even though Willowbrook Wildlife Center, the District’s wildlife education and rehabilitation center, does have a resident groundhog, the center doesn’t hold a big event because local groundhogs have yet to naturally wake up from hibernation by Feb. 2. “We’re happy to let Punxsutawney Phil and Woodstock Willie have all the fame and glory of making weather predictions because at Willowbrook we help visitors learn about how animals behave in the wild,” says Sandy Fejt, site manager at Willowbrook Wildlife Center.
      The farther north a groundhog lives, the earlier it begins hibernation and the later it awakes from that state. In DuPage County, groundhog hibernation begins in late October or early November and ends in late February or early March, depending on environmental factors such as snow and temperature.

      Fejt notes that most towns’ prognosticating mammals are captive creatures that are not harmed by their participation in Groundhog Day celebrations. However, waking a wild groundhog before it would emerge naturally could cause a threat to the animal’s health. “During hibernation, a groundhog’s heartbeat, metabolism and respiration slow, allowing it to live on its body fat,” explains Fejt. “If a groundhog is awakened from hibernation too early, it might not have the energy to find food and survive in cold winter temperatures.”
      Groundhog Day marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the vernal (spring) equinox. What started as a remnant of pagan festivals of rebirth and renewal and a Christian holiday known as Candlemas Day turned into a day of weather prediction. Legend has it that if the groundhog emerges from its hibernation hole on Feb. 2 and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If no shadow appears, spring is expected to arrive soon. Around the world, the behavior of bears, hedgehogs and other animals has been taken as an indication of the coming of spring.
      For more information about groundhogs and other wildlife in DuPage County, contact Willowbrook Wildlife Center in Glen Ellyn by email at willowbrook@dupageforest.org or by phone at 630-942-6200. The center is located at 525 S. Park Blvd. in Glen Ellyn and welcomes visitors to explore wild-animal exhibits from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
      For more information about the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s many programs and places, call 630-933-7200 or visit dupageforest.org.

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