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Mercy for the meteorological groundhog?

Mercy for the meteorological groundhog?

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TWIN FALLS — We say rock chuck. They say groundhog.

But are we talking about the same marmot? Not so much.

Punxsutawney Phil — the plump prognosticator of spring — will repeat his annual Groundhog Day ritual Sunday as he wakes from his winter slumber in his namesake town in Pennsylvania.

After the furry varmint sees his shadow — or not — a dozen town dignitaries wearing top hats will parade Phil in front of thousands of onlookers, congratulating themselves for yet another successful spectacle.

But Phil’s predictions have been wrong 60% of the time since the 1887 start of his career at Gobbler’s Knob, just outside of Punxsutawney, according to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

Perhaps we in Idaho should introduce the Punxsutawney top hats to Phil’s cousins, our rock chucks.

The two rodents are not the same, although they share some vernacular names. For instance, groundhogs and rock chucks are called “whistle pigs” because they both make a whistling sound to warn others of danger.

The two belong to the family of large ground squirrels called marmots. Rock chucks are the yellow-bellied marmot, while groundhogs are, well, groundhogs. Physically, the two are similar — so similar, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other unless the rock chuck’s yellow belly is showing.

Shoshone Falls rock chuck

A rock chuck hangs out on a cliff March 8 while Shoshone Falls flows in the background northeast of Twin Falls.

The easiest way to tell the two apart is by their habitat. Rock chucks are found in the mountainous regions of the West; groundhogs are found in lowlands of the Eastern U.S. and in Canada.

Predicting spring’s arrival

Just how did the groundhog get roped into this prediction predicament? The tradition came from European folklore that forecasts an early spring if the sky is cloudy on Feb. 2. If the sun shines, however, winter will last another six weeks.

Germans put a twist on the legend by saying the arrival of spring would be postponed if a badger saw his shadow on Feb. 2. Centuries ago, Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania, bringing the tradition with them — but instead of a badger, they adopted the local marmot for forecasting duty.

The groundhog legend’s theory has some merit, despite the rodent’s proven inability to predict the weather.

Marmots spend much of their time under the ground and aren’t particularly fond of the hot sun — so it’s understandable that the shy animal would dive back into its burrow at the first sight of bright sunlight. But whether that means six more weeks of winter is up for debate.

The longheld tradition is likely to continue unless the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have their way.

In a recent letter to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the president of PETA pleaded for mercy for the marmot, suggesting an animatronic meteorologist should replace Phil.

“Times change. Traditions evolve. It’s long overdue for Phil to be retired,” Ingrid Newkirk wrote in the letter. “By creating an AI Phil, you could keep Punxsutawney at the center of Groundhog Day but in a much more progressive way.”

Or maybe we could offer them a rock chuck.

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