Community members can learn about groundhogs and meet Woodchuck Norris Saturday afternoon as part of the annual Groundhog Day event.

PERRY TWP. The arctic weather this week put Woodchuck Norris in hibernation mode.

Nestled in a brown, cozy-looking dwelling lined with shredded newspaper, Woodchuck Norris preferred to stay in his bed where it's warm.

Come Saturday afternoon, all eyes will be on the fuzzy critter to see if the weather prognosticator sees his shadow.

With the recent snow and sub-zero temperatures, many Stark Countians are eager for Woodchuck Norris to retreat from his burrow with no sign of a shadow — indicating an early spring.

Punxsutawney Phil will make his annual Groundhog Day appearance in western Pennsylvania to predict whether Old Man Winter is on his way out. Buckeye Chuck also will poke his head out of his burrow in Marion. Columbus' Gateway Film Center at 1550 North High St. will be showing the movie "Groundhog Day" featuring Bill Murray nonstop through Sunday afternoon.

Introducing Woodchuck Norris

Last spring, Woodchuck Norris came to the Wildlife Conservation Center at 800 Genoa Ave. NW as a baby before his eyes had opened. He was found orphaned and wandering around aimlessly in someone's backyard.

"When woodchuck babies come out of their hole that small, most of the time that means something happened to mom," explained Vanessa Shanower, a wildlife rehabilitation specialist.

Woodchuck Norris (named after the martial artist, actor, film producer and screenwriter Chuck Norris) was raised alongside other groundhog babies who were released into the wild after they matured. However, Woodchuck Norris imprinted, which means he has become used to humans and is dependent upon them for survival.

"It just happens when they are raised in captivity, unfortunately," Shanower said. "That's why we prefer animals to be raised by their wild parent."

When he was released, Shanower said, he would follow people around. He also hadn't developed the instincts a groundhog would need to survive in the wild.

Woodchuck Norris has stepped into General Stark II's shoes as the resident groundhog or ambassador. General Stark died in late 2018. Caitlin McCully, marketing assistant at Stark Parks, said General Stark II came to the Wildlife Conservation Center in 2012 with some health complications.

Groundhog is a nickname for the large rodent creature whose real name is a woodchuck. Whistlepig and land beaver are other common nicknames, Shanower said.

As groundhogs mature, they become territorial and aggressive, she said. A small tennis ball at the end of a metal rod is used to guide Woodchuck Norris during training. Animals with aggressive tenancies aren't handled, Shanower said.

Like humans and many other animals, groundhogs have distinct personalities, Shanower said. Woodchuck Norris has low aggression, a high tolerance for humans and is mostly food driven, she said. A sweet treat like a berry or a banana can coax Woodchuck Norris out of his house.

The event

The annual Groundhog Day event operates similar to an open house, said Trevor Householder, an education programmer at Stark Parks.

Between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. community members may visit Quail Hollow Park at 13480 Congress Lake Ave. NE in Lake Township. The event is free and open to all, Householder said.

Typically celebrated at Exploration Gateway in Perry Township, the event was moved to Quail Hollow last year as a way to incorporate another Stark Park into annual events, he said.

Life-size games such as Jenga and Connect 4 will be available in the Manor House as well as crafts where children can make their own paper groundhog. Self-guided or docent-led tours of the Manor House are also available.

Children can use their imagination and pretend to be a groundhog as they crawl through a tunnel, Householder said.

Last year's Groundhog Day event drew more than 100 people. With the temperature expected to climb into the mid-40s Saturday, Householder said, Stark Parks anticipates a good turnout to see if Woodchuck Norris spots his shadow.

Longtime tradition

Feb. 2 is Candlemas Day, which has roots in Christianity when believers would take their candles to the church to have them blessed. In turn, God would bring blessings to their household during the remainder of the winter, according to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club.

No animal was a part of the tradition until it was introduced in Germany. If a hedgehog saw his shadow on Candlemas Day, there would be a "second winter" or six more weeks of cold, bad weather. As German settlers came into what is now the U.S., the tradition came with it.

A groundhog instead of a hedgehog was used to continue this folklore, which lead to present day Punxsutawney.

According to the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club website, 1886 marked the first Groundhog Day as we know it.

Reach Samantha at 330-775-1133 or
On Twitter: @sickesINDE