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The goodness of groundhogs

Did you ever stop to think that there's only one animal that has its own special day on the calendar in this country? With that kind of acclaim, it must be a real beauty, or very brave, or else incredibly clever, right? Well, not quite.

In fact, farmers who lived in New England in the late 1800s thought groundhogs were pests because of all the holes they dug in their fields. The farmers eventually persuaded the New Hampshire legislature to set up an official Woodchuck Committee to study the problem. Its findings? That groundhogs (or woodchucks, as they're called in some parts of the United States) were ``thick and squat-ty'' and ``absolutely devoid of any interesting qualities.''

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Hogwash. Whether you call them woodchucks - or even whistle pigs - groundhogs have some good traits. It just takes a little extra hunting to discover them. Sigmund A. Lavine is one teacher who is doing all he can to talk up groundhogs' fine points. In a book he wrote several years ago, ``Wonders of Woodchucks,'' Mr. Lavine noted that although there haven't been a lot of popular songs about woodchucks, there is a terrific banjo piece called ``Groundhog.'' There are a number of well-known poems, too, including Robert Frost's ``A Drumlin Woodchuck'' and David McCord's ``A Woodchuck is a Groundhog.'' There's even a tongue-twister: ``How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?''

Then there's that officially designated Groundhog Day each year. It's a really big event in Punxsutawney, Penn., where members of the Ground-hog Club have been checking out a local woodchuck hole every Feb. 2 since 1898. Legend has it that if ``Punxsutawney Phil'' emerges from his burrow that day, takes a quick look at his shadow, and dives back underground for some more sleep, it's a sure sign that winter will last for six more weeks. On the other hand, if he doesn't see his shadow but stays outside to enjoy the day, spring is definitely on the way.

There are some scientists who contend that groundhogs aren't very reliable weather forecasters because they hibernate from December till March. And there are others who will tell you that Groundhog Day should, in fact, be called Badger Day because the tradition came to this country with European settlers who were used to watching for badgers' shadows.

But those arguments miss the point that groundhogs may well be among the unsung heroes of the animal kingdom. After all, they do a number of good deeds - for us and for their fellow creatures. In the summer months, they help to keep down the June bug population. And during the rest of the year, they provide plenty of pre-dug burrows for rabbits, opossums, weasels, and skunks.

Perhaps we should start a petition. Instead of calling Feb. 2 Groundhog Day, why not Groundhog Appreciation Day?

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