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Pfeiffer: Ground Hog Day

02/01/12 5:55PM By Bryan Pfeiffer
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(Host) On the eve of Groundhog Day, commentator Bryan Pfeiffer points out that there's much more going on outside than a silly ritual with a woodchuck. 

(Pfeiffer) Pay no attention to Phil and the pranksters in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania tomorrow. Instead, listen for Black-capped Chickadees beginning their wistful fee-bee serenade; the rich, repeated whistled notes of Northern Cardinals; or Carolina Wrens with their energetic call of tea-kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle! 

It can sound like springtime in February, regardless of whether or not the groundhog sees his shadow. That's because the real significance of Groundhog Day isn't about sunshine. It's about day length. Around February 2 we start getting more than 10 hours of daylight. And that matters to wildlife. 

It doesn't mean that spring is around the corner. This is Vermont, after all. Songbirds schedule breeding to coincide with an abundance of food for their offspring, mostly insects, which comes around May and June. But now, as the days grow longer, birds do start thinking about - well - making more birds. It's why they sing. 

And while thoughts might not be the best way to describe the desires of birds, we do know that photo-receptors in their brains sense increasing light. This triggers the production of hormones that act like birdie Viagra. So when the food is there in May, songbirds will be ready - you know - physically. 

February 2 falls about halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, a period reflected in human traditions from Paganism to Christianity. It's probably no coincidence that Valentine's Day is also celebrated this time of year. 

But why the groundhog? Couldn't we have picked a loftier critter to represent the coming of the light? 

Now, I've got nothing against woodchucks by any name. But it turns out that this rodent is indeed a worthy harbinger of spring. 

In the light of February, woodchucks emerge from hibernation hot to trot. They need to breed now so that females produce litters during greater food abundance in April and May. 

The same goes for other rodents, particularly squirrels, which have an unusual mating ritual. Female squirrels are receptive to males for breeding for about eight hours on a single day during this season. And males outnumber females in the wild by as much as five to one. Among males competition for a female is fierce. So those boys spend a lot of time following a given female in the days leading up to their one big day. 

Any male who's too forthcoming, too anxious before she's ready, will get from the female a swat to his face or a painful bite. But when those precious eight hours finally do arrive, on their day in the sun, males compete and fight for a coupling with a female that might last only about 20 seconds. 

So tomorrow, we should recognize the real significant of Groundhog Day. In the growing light of February, this isn't a holiday about six more weeks of winter. It's a celebration of romance, even if it turns out to be a tribute to rodent romance.
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