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French Creek Freddie predicts early spring

FRENCH CREEK, W.Va. -- French Creek Freddie, the West Virginia Wildlife Center's chief prognosticator of spring's arrival, peered out the door to his shelter on Thursday, and was seemingly stunned to see a crowd of more than 100 people cheering his appearance.

The groundhog craned his neck and sniffed the morning's moist, chilly air for a few moments, then promptly made an about-face and attempted to re-enter his snug, straw insulated winter quarters.

Wildlife Center staff member Gary Hissam, who bottle-fed Freddie after the baby groundhog was dropped off at the French Creek facility a year ago, gently nudged his charge out of the shelter's doorway and into the open-air enclosure.

"What do you say, Freddie?" asked Wildlife Center Superintendent Gene Thorn. "Did you see your shadow?"

The groundhog took a few steps into his pen, glancing curiously at a nearby cluster of photographers, and then eyeing the crowd jamming the walkway in front of groundhog exhibit.

"In groundhog-ese, he said he didn't see his shadow," Thorn informed the crowd, who greeted the news with cheers and applause.

According to Thorn, for 35 years, French Creek Freddie in his various incarnations has consistently been correct in predicting whether the final six weeks of winter will be spring-like or wintry.

Last year, Freddie also failed to see his shadow, and in the weeks that followed, snowfall was below average and temperatures steadily rose, reaching the 70s by March.

In fact, Thorn said, one hour after making last year's prediction, the mixture of light snow and rain that had fallen on the French Creek area had given way to scattered clouds and sunshine, allowing temperatures to climb to 55 degrees by the end of the day.

"He may not know what the weather will be like in the Rockies, but for predicting weather in the Appalachians of central West Virginia, he does his job," Thorn said.

Among those awaiting Freddie's appearance on Thursday were a half-dozen tophatted members of the Monaxian Society, who take their name from the groundhog's scientific title, marmota monax.

Since the early 1990s, Monaxian Society members, mainly from the Buckhannon area, have been on hand to view and appreciate Freddie's arrival.

"This is our defining moment of the year," said Monaxian Society spokesman Bill Sembello. "Well, that and breakfast at Kay's Diner."

Jessica Siegfried, a Montana native who works at West Virginia Wesleyan University, wore a groundhog hat to Thursday's event.

"I wore it in the office all day yesterday, too," she said. "Groundhog's Day is my favorite holiday. The idea of having a rodent meteorologist is fun."

Groundhog Day observances don't occur in her birth state of Montana, where varmint hunters often target the animals, she said.

"They're nicer to groundhogs here."

Before Freddie emerged from his shelter, Thorn passed out song sheets and led the crowd of celebrants in singing a verse of "I Am a Groundhog," and sketched the background of the Groundhog Day observance.

"Its roots are with a Celtic holiday that evolved into the [Christian] celebration of Candlemas," Thorn said.

 During Candlemas, or Candelaria, candles are blessed, lit and carried in procession to celebrate Jesus being the light of the world. It was once believed that during the six weeks following Candlemas, the weather would be the opposite of what it was on Candlemas day.

In Medieval times, some European farmers believed hibernating animals would leave their dens on Candelmas to observe the weather. If the animals saw their shadows, according to the tradition, farmers had to postpone planting, since more wintry weather was on the way.

German-American settlers in Pennsylvania revived the tradition in the 1800s, and on Feb. 2, 1887, held their first annual visit to Gobblers Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa., to seek meteorological guidance from Punxsutawney Phil.

While Thorn claims a 100 percent accuracy rate for French Creek Freddie's Feb. 2 predictions, Punxsutawney Phil's accuracy rate is a more down-to-earth 39 percent.

While members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club claim that a secret elixir has allowed the original Phil to remain alive for 125 years, Thorn says French Creek Freddie has involved the efforts of a number of resident groundhogs during the past 35 years.

"The average lifespan for groundhogs in the wild is six to eight years, although they can live up to 10 years in captivity," he said.

Groundhogs are also some of the most intense hibernators among the animals residing at the Wildlife Center.

"We had to wake Freddie up for this," Thorn said. "But he would have been up soon, anyway. The normal breeding period for groundhogs is in February."

Thorn said Thursday's audience was the largest-ever weekday crowd for a Groundhog Day celebration. "On a warm Saturday, we had more than 300 people show up," he said.

The West Virginia Wildlife Center is a modern zoological facility that exhibits native and introduced wildlife species that live, or once lived, in West Virginia. For more information, visit www.wvdnr.gov/wildlife/wildlifecenter.shtm.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 


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