When It Comes to Groundhogs Predicting Spring's Arrival, This MontCo Native Trumps a National Player

Next Sunday, February 2, Groundhog Day, visitors and media reps alike will flock to mid-state Pennsylvania to see for themselves the weather forecast of Punxsutawney Phil, perhaps the nation's most famous groundhog.

But if accuracy counts for anything, they would do better in Norristown.

Since her debut in 2011, Norristown Nora, Elmwood Park Zoo's answer to Phil, will predict either an early spring or six more weeks of chill. The difference is, Nora will more likely be right.

"In the two years Nora has been part of our Groundhog Day," says Laurie Smith Wood, Elmwood Park Zoo's Director of Education, "she has been 100% right. Phil, on the other hand, has been incorrect both years."

Mr. Punxsutawney better start looking over his shoulder.

The tradition of using a fuzzy animal with big teeth to predict the length of winter is definitely odd. Wood traces its originations to a combination of superstition and available resources.

Groundhog Day 2013 at Elmwood Park Zoo

Spectators gather at Elmwood Park Zoo on Groundhog Day to see Nora.

Early February marked an important time of year to ancient cultures, midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The Celts, for example, celebrated Imbolog, this seasonal midpoint, as an important agricultural milestone. Fair weather meant a cold and stormy finale to winter, and overcast skies meant a mild period toward spring. The Romans brought this tradition to Germany, where it was intertwined with the hedgehog and whether or not it saw its shadow.

"When German immigrants brought these beliefs with them to Pennsylvania," explains Wood, "they had no European hedgehog to watch. So they substituted a groundhog. In Pennsylvania, if the groundhog, upon waking up from mid-Winter hibernation emerges and sees its shadow, it will pop back into its burrow for six more weeks of winter. If the day is cloudy, it remains out, as the weather will be moderate."

Nora came to Elmwood Park Zoo from the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center, an accredited wildlife rehabilitation facility in Hampton Bays, N.Y. "She had suffered an injury to her back leg as a result of being hit by a car," Wood says. "Since she could no longer survive on her own in the wild, she needed to be placed in a facility where she would not only be taken care of, but also where she could act as an education ambassador for native wildlife."

That home has become the Elmwood Park Zoo, where Nora enjoys a diet of carrots, yams, lettuce, apples berries and special rodent biscuits. "Her very favorite food is peanut butter," laughs Wood.

Nora Makes Her PredictionOfficiating over the proceedings of February 2 at the zoo is Hank Cisco, the Ambassador of Norristown, who will certify the results. Visitors can see Nora's weathercasting skills for themselves, take part in craft and enrichment projects and even serenade Nora with a chorus of "I'm a Little Groundhog" (sung to the tune of "I'm a Little Teapot," Wood informs).

The event kicks off at noon. "Although Punxsutawney Phil makes his prediction at the pre-dawn hour, Nora is not as much a prognosticator as she is a procrastinator, and prefers to arise at a much more acceptable hour," says Wood.

The Elmwood Park Zoo is moving ahead with a number of improvements that will carry through the rest of 2014 and beyond. Additional parking spaces have been added (110 of them), and a children's zip line is on the way. In terms of unique animal experiences, the zoo will be opening a Sun Conure Exhibit in which kids and adults can feed seeds to small, colorful parrots. And the giraffes will be back this summer.

But for now, the animals have hunkered down to ride out the cold, waiting to see if Nora will bring a further freeze or more mild conditions. And while most, like us, favor an early exit of Old Man Winter, Wood points out that several of the Elmwood residents aren't complaining about the ice and snow. "The wolves and bison are loving it," she says. "The sight of a 1,200-pound bison frolicking around is amazing to watch."

Elmwood Park Zoo

Playing in the snow may work for a 1,200-pound bison, but it may not exactly be your cup of tea. The alternative, however, doesn't have to be simply sitting inside and staring out the window until spring arrives. The bureau website is featuring our Cabin Fever Reliever promotions, which not only offer suggestions on things to do at this time of year but also provides discounts. You could enjoy an enticing BoGo offer at an area restaurant, take in a museum at a reduced admission rate or check into one of our welcoming hotels.