He may not be alive but Okie, the Allan Brooks Nature Centre’s stuffed yellow-bellied marmot, brought life to the crowd that gathered in Vernon Thursday for the seasonal tradition of Groundhog Day.
It’s going to be a short winter if shadows of stuffed yellow-bellied marmots can actually be trusted to prognosticate seasonal changes.
“I know we are all excited to hear this pleasant news and are looking forward to greener grass once again,” nature centre manager Cheryl Hood said, adding later that 70 people gathered in Vernon Thursday for the event.
Hood pointed out that it’s only the second time Okie’s been called to duty and so far his predictions have been less than stellar. Last year, he was propped up to measure his shadow and he was dead wrong.
But, she pointed out, being right isn’t exactly the point. The new stuffie-focused tradition is about gathering community, thinking about the natural world and maybe a little bit of historical reflection.
“We used a stuffed marmot because we don’t have it in our hearts for keeping a wild animal penned up for a 30-second prediction,” she said.
“And we wanted something to be fun. It’s a bit ridiculous that a rodent predicts the weather. But there is a history and there’s a tiny tiny bit of micro science behind it. ”
The “micro science” has to do with high-pressure systems that bring sunnier and colder days in addition to a groundhog’s shadow. When that happens, the accompanying prediction is six more weeks of winter.
On cloudier days, like Thursday, shadows are less likely and spring is supposed to come along sooner. The tradition, she said, was born with the Vikings and then taken over by Christians. When they came over to North America, they stopped using badgers, as they had at home, and turned to the groundhog, which is a type of marmot.
Most important to the Allan Brooks Centre, however, is the life of the little creatures that have shared the Okanagan with humans for the expanse of their shared history.
While they dart in and out of view, they can live long lives.
“They can live 15 years in the wild according to some of the research my staff has done, if there aren’t a lot of predators around” Hood said. “Badgers and coyotes are their predators.”
When they come in contact with one of these creatures a loud squeak may be heard.
“Some people call them whistlepigs because they do a high-pitch whistle when they’re in danger,” Hood said.
It’s not a sound likely to be heard until March, when their hibernation period ends.
“Marmots are true hibernators, a bear is semi-conscious and will get up in winter and wander around whereas marmots truly hibernate and their metabolism slows down and they sleep for six to eight months,” she said.
Meanwhile, in other parts of Canada, Groundhog Day didn’t go to script this year: one died before making a prediction, while others were divided over whether spring will come early this year.
Quebec’s Fred la Marmotte died before he was able to reveal his prediction Thursday, with volunteer children stepping in to take its place.
Ontario’s Wiarton Willie called for an early spring Thursday morning, as did Alberta’s Balzac Billy.
Their furry counterpart in Nova Scotia, Shubenacadie Sam, saw her shadow as she emerged from a snow-covered enclosure at a wildlife park north of Halifax. In Manitoba, the stuffed groundhog Merv saw his shadow, as did Punxsutawney Phil in the United States.
In Nova Scotia, Lucy the Lobster crawled out of the ocean at Cape Sable Island Causeway at 8 a.m. local time, and saw her shadow, organizers said.