Last weekend I counted twelve kinds of birds at the feeders: Juncos (my winter favorite,) chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, purple finches, even the wren made a cameo appearance–I haven’t seen him in months. There were also woodpeckers, titmouse, doves, multitudes of sparrows and grackles. And the hawk. Well, the hawk was not actually at the feeder, but he did spread his shadow overtop and the rest of the birds made a quick exit to the shrubs nearby.

Speaking of shadows, I like to think of Ground Hog Day as the winter “halftime report” for gardeners. Not that, given the current conditions we will be out there doing much anytime soon, but it gives us a bit of something to look forward to.

In preparation of this newsletter, I did a little surfing to find some history, some legend, about groundhogs and how they came to be a marker for determining winter’s length. Before we had sophisticated weather instruments to let us know about storms, humans relied on natural signs as markers–birds of course are one we can see their migration as they follow their biological calls for food and mates. The following information is from Stormfax: Ground Hog Day has origins with Candlemas, a European holiday where priests distributed candles at the mid point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Candles were placed in windows of homes to brighten the dark, winter nights. It was believed that if there was a sunny, bright day on Candlemas, there would be a lot more winter weather. German settlers brought this tradition to Pennsylvania, met the Delaware tribe of Native Americans, who revered the ground hog as an ancestral grandfather, and there it is. So now we know why it is said that if the day is sunny and the hog sees his shadow, we are thought to have more winter.

But how accurate is this? Students at PS 29 in Staten Island (Staten Island Live) have been doing statistical studies that indicate Staten Island Chuck has had an 80% accuracy rating in predicting the duration of winter. Students record the number of days that will be over 40 degrees between February 2nd and March 21st. Apparently, there is a strong correlation between the type of day –weather-wise–that happens on February 2nd to what the rest of winter will be like. The nicer the day on February 2nd, the less nice days afterwards–meaning that if it’s sunny and pleasant, there will be a shadow cast, and thus predicting a longer winter. If the day is dull and cold, it indicates there will more likely be more mild weather ahead. Apparently our Pennsylvania Phil does not have as accurate a record in prognosticating as Chuck. No matter what Phil or Chuck determine on February 2nd, it’s all fun. It is also reported that Chuck may have exhibited political motivation when he snapped at the mayor’s outstretched-corn-cob-holding hand, still getting away with the prize. Go Chuck.

These natural events connect us, even when its cold and wintery, to the elements that operate all around us. I used to look to the return of robins around mid February as a marker for spring not being far-off, but they were at the feeder after the meal worms just days ago. Apparently there is enough food– my feeder aside–to keep them around. Is this another indicator for climate change?  Seems likely. I’m thinking we all could do a good turn by playing our part–mindfully–in the care and maintenance of our beautiful world, and it might just help to pay attention more to the signs around us.

I just saw the hawk take a spin over the garden, landing in the branches of the bare sycamore. No shadow for him today, either.

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