Prognosticating Groundhogs Gaining in the Shadow of Punxsutawney Phil

Move over Punxsutawney Phil. You've got some prognosticating competition.

In the shadow of Pennsylvania's most famous groundhog, a young guard of rodents — Woody in Michigan, Gen. Beauregard Lee in Georgia, Sir Walter Wally in North Carolina and Staten Island Chuck in New York — is threatening to give the woodchuck some competition.

"You have to look at the footage and make your own judgment call," said Doug Schwartz, a Staten Island Zoo keeper and weekend caretaker of Staten Island Chuck, one of a handful of prognosticating rodents set to look for their shadows Friday morning.

"I think if you look when our boy's on camera, you can see that he has a certain twinkle in his eye and a certain zest for living that the other groundhogs just plainly don't have," Schwartz added with a bit of New York bravado.

Like a bevy of competing pop divas, each groundhog boasts a distinctive persona projected upon the creature as part of their region's greater Groundhog Day mythos, and each one brags about his record of accuracy.

As legend goes, the groundhog will emerge from his (or her) lair on Friday morning. If he sees his shadow and runs away, it means six more weeks of winter. If the groundhog is unafraid, spring is on its way.

At the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn, Ga., a 14-year-old groundhog named Gen. Beauregard Lee lives out his twilight years in a three-story woodchuck mansion dubbed Weathering Heights, says owner Art Rilling.

"He's got his satellite dish, his wine cellar and his gym," Rilling said. "Everything he needs is inside so he can stay there and be happy."

So Thursday, as Rilling spoke to, Gen. Lee enjoyed an episode of the old vampire show "Dark Shadows" at home and rested up for the big day.

"When you don't have to work for a living, you don't have any varmints after you, you get good food everyday, vet care, you can live longer than your run of the mill groundhog," Rilling said of his forecaster, who happens to have two honorary doctorates, citations from the National Weather Service and the Georgia governor for his work and a claim of 94 percent accuracy.

In Howell, Mich., about 55 miles from Detroit, a groundhog named Woody was resting in straw for her big prediction. This nearly 9-year-old — who has predicted six out of eight winters correctly — has a secret weapon: She's female.

"Women's intuition, by all means," said Dana DeBenham, wildlife director of the Howell Conference and Nature Center. "And she always has the prerogative to change her mind, although she hasn't changed her mind, so far."

Each groundhog has his or her own way of doing things, and each has their favorite pre-prediction treats.

Woody will get bananas and peanuts as "she likes those better than her rodent blocks and her greens," DeBenham said. Gen. Lee will awaken Friday to a plate of hash browns and Chuck will sup on sweet potatoes, dandelions and broccoli.

Those who make it out to see Chuck, who often takes the bus home with Schwartz and builds nests out of the zookeeper's dirty laundry, should expect some swagger from this groundhog. "Chuck" boasts a 98 percent accuracy rating, though this particular Chuck is only 8-months old.

"He's a New York kind of guy, so whatever it takes to get the job done," Schwartz said. "If he has a little bit of an attitude with a capital 'A' that's alright, as long as he makes good predictions. See we're after results here."

To that end, Chuck will sleep over at the Schwartz house Thursday night.

"I'll make sure he goes to bed early so that he won't be angry and mutilate any politicians on stage," Schwartz said.

Others, like those who care for Sir Walter Wally at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, try to keep the competition from their critters.

"We keep him in the dark about that — no pun intended," said Jon Pishney, communications director of the museum. "We like to just let him think that he's the top groundhog. I don't think they like the pressure too much."

In Punxsutawney, Pa., the party had already begun Thursday afternoon, with Phil kicked back with his wife, Phyllis, and cousin Barney, while the top-hatted members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's Inner Circle enjoyed their 121st year in the limelight.

"He is resting comfortably, studying the stars and determining the correct prognostication," said Mike Johnston, a member of the Inner Circle nicknamed "Big Flake Maker."

As Chuck, Woody, Sir Walter Wally and Gen. Beau Lee — along with albino prognosticator Wiarton Willie in South Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada (unavailable for comment Thursday) — readied themselves for Groundhog Day, Punxsutawney Phil didn't seem fazed by those who would try to usurp him.

"It certainly is a compliment to have imitators across the country, but I don't think he's particularly threatened by them," Johnston said. "I'm not even sure that he perceives it as competition."