Get to Know Michigan’s Woody the Woodchuck Ahead of Groundhog Day
| 5 min read
Michigan is home to a long list of celebrities and big names, but Woody the Woodchuck might be the most beloved.
Every Groundhog Day, Woody emerges from a small house placed on a stage at the Howell Nature Center to let us know how soon the spring might arrive. Her prediction is always the main event of a jam-packed, family-friendly morning that happens annually in Howell.
When it comes to her once-a-year duty in predicting the weather, Woody boasts a 70% success rate. Her yearly appearance is on the national radar along with Punxsutawney Phil, the pride of Pennsylvania.
“Woody is the official groundhog for the whole state of Michigan, and it’s become a fun little thing to see if she will be more accurate than that other groundhog out in Pennsylvania,” explained Laura Butler, the center’s senior director of wildlife.
“We open the door for her and give her the opportunity to come out or stay in,” Butler said, explaining the big Groundhog Day moment. “If she sees her shadow, she will typically become afraid and go back in the house. That predicts six more weeks of winter. If she stays out and doesn’t see her shadow, then we’re looking forward to an early spring.”
The Center runs a wildlife rehabilitation clinic that treats injured or orphaned wild animals. Michigan’s most adorable weather forecaster arrived at Howell’s Wild Wonders Wildlife Park in 1998, brought in by the wife of a farmer who had removed her mother and left her orphaned.
“The farmer’s wife found Woody crawling out of a burrow and took her in and cared for her for a little while before realizing she should bring her into our rehabilitation clinic,” Butler said. “Woodchucks are the type of species that habituate fairly easily to people when they’re young. So, we found that she didn’t really wild up. She remained very friendly with people just in her time in the farmer’s wife’s care.”
The clinic opted against releasing her back into the wild, because they noticed Woody wasn’t necessarily equipped with the skills she needed to survive. In a way, she had been domesticated, at least to a degree.
Soon after finding her new forever home, Woody was appointed the Center’s wildlife ambassador, and an ambassador of her species. Soon after that, in 1999, the Groundhog Day tradition began.
Woody’s affinity for us humans is just one of her glowing personality traits. When she’s super excited, she might bust out a somersault or two. And like many of us, she has a soft spot for junk food. Or at least what may be categorized as junk food for a groundhog’s diet.
“She loves to eat, but she really doesn’t love her healthy veggies,” Butler said. “She prefers things like peanuts, bananas, and other fruits. She loves corn on the cob, too.”
She’s also a big fan of ear cleaning time. One of the Nature Center staff’s favorite games is to give Woody different types of enrichment to see what she’ll do with them.
“She’s funny. She really likes to add to her nest,” Butler added. “Anything she can find to add to her nest she’ll put in there. So, scraps of paper, straw, leaves, things like that. When the keepers try to clean it up or rearrange anything she doesn’t like that, and she lets them know.”
The educational element to Groundhog Day in Howell
The 2024 Howell Groundhog Day Celebration in 2024 takes place Friday, Feb. 2 from 7:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m. It kicks off with a costume contest for kids, who can come to the event dressed as winter, spring, a groundhog or any other costumes that fit the theme of the day. The winner receives a $25 Nature Center gift certificate.
Before Woody graces guests with her presence and prediction at 8:30 a.m., attendees will have a chance to participate in the groundhog-focused games hosted by the knowledgeable wildlife staff. Groundhogs are so cute, furry, and entertaining, but they also help our ecosystem thrive.
“We really like to try to make this an educational event,” Butler said. “We really want people to live in harmony with wildlife, and woodchucks are always the most well-loved species we have in the area. We do our very best to let people know all the benefits of woodchucks and how they really help the ecosystem.”
Butler and the Center’s wildlife staff would like to remind us that woodchucks:
- Increase soil health by digging, which aerates the soil and recycles nutrients.
- Sometimes eat insects to keep insect population down, which can ultimately keep bugs out of our personal gardens.
- Are part of the food web, so they provide food for predators like coyotes, foxes, eagles, hawks and badgers.
- Help disperse the seeds they eat through their waste, contributing to plant growth.
- Provide home and shelter to other animals through their burrow systems, which can be as long as 50 feet and often consist of many different chambers.
While groundhogs are often in the spotlight each February, Butler wants to remind the public how important it is to humanely evict groundhogs from areas they are unwanted.
“A lot of people tend to want to trap them and relocate them, but there are a lot of things people can do to encourage them to move away,” she said. “We have a wildlife helpline that gives advice for situations like that, so people can always call, and we can give them tips.”
That helpline is 517-548-5530. If you’re yet to register for the Groundhog Day festivities in Howell but would like to do so, fill out a form at this link and order your free tickets.
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Photo credit: Howell Nature Center