Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Ah, yes. February 2. Groundhog Day.


Oh, I can figure out why it’s in early February. Groundhogs or woodchucks or whistling pigs – there’s no cultural, geographic, or linguistic reason why different people call them by different names, at least none I could find – are “light” hibernators. If the winter weather warms up for a day or so, as happens during “normal” winters unlike this one, when the weather has been unusually warm all season, they’ll pop out of their burrows to have a snack. Judging by their summer eating habits, the snack will probably be one of my favorite plants rather than poison ivy or pokeweed or Jimsonweed or some other noxious, invasive weed. Before they return to their solitary burrows to go back to sleep, though, they’ll also engage in a bit of amatory reproductive activity. In that way, by the time the kits (or are they pups?) are born, it will be spring and food, aka my favorite plants, will be in abundance. Deer do the same thing, which is why they run amok trying to mate with cars during the early winter.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: If Punxsatawney Phil or another local celebrity groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy out, there will be an early spring.

Huh? Six weeks from February 2 is March 16, which is pretty early for the winter to be over. In fact, it’s a few days before the Spring Equinox, which is the astronomical spring but not the meteorological one. In this area, the frost-free date used to be May 15 – it’s now closer to May 1 – so anything before, let’s say, mid-April is already an early spring.

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not Phil sees his shadow.


Why my fascination with groundhogs/woodchucks/whistling pigs? I have an on-going battle with them. Or, rather, with it. There’s only one at a time in my yard – they’re solitary creatures, except during mating season, as they’re not into parthenogenesis – but I can’t tell if it’s the same one all the time or several different ones. The only time I could tell one was a female was when Mommy came with her two babies, Chuckles and Chucklet, to show them the free salad bar.

Why am I at war with it? It digs holes. Deep holes. The exit holes from its burrow aren’t too noticeable – just a nice, neat round hole, exactly the right size for me to put my foot into. This time of year, the holes are filled with leaves, making them effectively camouflaged. I don’t fill them with stones to block Chuck from using them, because it will just dig another one. At least I know where the current ones are. I still step in them, but I know where they are. The entrance holes, on the other hand, are surrounded by piles of excavated dirt and easy to see. I’m thinking of using the hillocks as raised flower beds. But the plants will undoubtedly get eaten.

That’s my other problem with Chuck. It eats my plants. I no longer grow veggies. It’s an exercise in futility. Containers aren’t the answer, as Chuck climbs the steps onto the deck, pulls itself into the container, and sits there munching away. Coneflowers are beheaded within hours of going into the ground, although to be fair, it may be the chipmunks eating them.

One year, at the Philadelphia Flower Show, I asked someone at the Rodale exhibit how to get rid of woodchucks. “You mean non-lethally?” he asked. He went on to say that if I could find a way, I’d become a millionaire. Even that incentive wasn’t enough to help me come up with a technique.

So I live with Chuck. I watch it emerge in the spring, sleek and hungry, and gradually become plumper, as my plants dwindle in number. By the end of summer, Chuck can barely waddle across the yard. But it has no problem digging holes.


  1. This was hilarious…although why I can laugh when I’m overrun with voles, chipmunks and deer who also assault my garden, I don’t know

    I don’t happen to have the woodchuck problem though, so can’t offer any advice there…but should have the secret to the above named “pests”, do share…although I’ll admit that the deer, while quite destructive, are such a delight to watch that I forgive them their scorched earth ways.


  2. The only reason I haven’t bought a shotgun (besides being anit-guns, not to mention I’d probably shoot off my foot before hitting any target) is because the groundhogs are so cute!

    I did see a vole once, when I had lifted up an in-ground birdbath in the perennial garden to find a nose sticking out of a small hole.

    The chipmunks are impossible to defeat, and the only way I ever have any strawberries (which is seldom) is by putting netting over the pot. I put parsely now in the top of a tall planter (that has tomatoes hanging from the bottom). The chipmunks could likely get to it, but haven’t bothered.

    We used to have so many deer behind our property that we put out a salt slick for them in winter. Now we seldom see them. We also have a 5′ high fence on top of a 2′ retaining wall.

    On my original website/blog (, I posted all the columns I wrote about 10 years ago. One of them was about the irony of having a wildlife-friendly yard and then complaining when the wildlife showed up. It’s at:

  3. I enjoyed your commentary. The only thing I can add is that if you really want flowers in your yard, buy the silk variety. It’s all I can “grow” in my yard. Also my ground hog, New Jersey Norman, doesn’t usually eat my tomato plants.

  4. Chuck loves zucchini, but I’ve never seen it eating tomatoes. That’s because the squirrels don’t leave any.

  5. I have a woodchuck in my backyard I call Wally. He’s very fat, wobbly and moves slow. But I’ve never caught him doing the kind of damage done by the deer who once decimated my entire tomato crop overnight and ate the heads off all my tulips. But whenever I see the deer, I am so enchanted with their beauty that I’d be willing to cater a banquet just to keep them coming back. I actually had a neighbor who did that. He put out a salt lick and a bushel of corn and apples for them. Beauty has its price!

  6. You’re right. I never realized that forecast really didn’t mean much! Good luck with the growing.

  7. Congratulations on your new blog, Ilene. Great look. And here I thought I had it bad with critters no bigger than slugs in my garden!

  8. I’ve always wondered how the groundhog became so important as to have a day dedicated to him. Maybe it’s, as you say, because he’s so cute.

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