The Lowly Groundhog: Long May They Live

 

by Walter Brasch

 

Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, Thursday.

That means there will be an additional six weeks of winter.

Or, it means there will be an early Spring.

It doesn’t make much difference. Phil has an accuracy rate of about 39 percent, according to the StormFax Weather Almanac. That’s probably about the same as TV weather forecasters.

StormFax has tracked Phil’s predictions since 1897, the year he (with the help of the Punxsatawney Spirit) made his first trip to Gobbler’s Knob, about two miles from the town in the northwest part of Pennsylvania.

The name, Punxsutawney, is probably derived from an Algonquin or Delaware Indian name which loosely translates as “village of sand fleas.” The name, Phil, is a tribute to Philip Freas, a staff writer for the Spirit, who wrote dozens of stories about what would become one of the most enduring tourism attractions in the country.

The festival is based upon a German superstition and a Celtic celebration. The superstition relates to hibernating animals; when they leave their den, if they see their shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter; if they don’t, it’s an early spring. The Celtic festival (known as Imbolc) was midway between the winter solstice (usually about Dec. 21–22), and the Spring Equinox (usually March 20). The date set for Phil’s annual prediction is always Feb. 2, midway between the beginning of Winter and the beginning of Spring. This, of course, means that among the millions who now watch the ceremony in person, by webcam, or on the TV news, none are groundhogs. Except for Phil, they hibernate in well-constructed underground burrows from October to early Spring.

The name, woodchuck, an alternate for groundhog, is probably from “wojak,” a Native American word.

The second most famous ground hog is Gus. Unlike the furry Phil, who lives with his wife, Phyllis, in a library for most of the year, Gus is a cute little animatronic animal whose primary mission is to lure Pennsylvanians to spend money on the state lottery. Television commercials have assured Gus of his own celebrity. However, unlike Phil, he doesn’t make personal appearances.

Groundhogs in captivity have life spans that average 10–14 years. However, faced by several predators—including wolves, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, eagles and man—groundhogs usually live only two or three years in the wild.

Phil and Gus are just about the only two groundhogs that people feel any warmth for. The Pennsylvania Game Commission treats groundhogs as nuisance animals. Every day but Sunday is open season on the animals that weigh only about five to nine pounds. Even a cursory look at Google shows that several hundred thousand posts about groundhogs focus upon ways to kill them, with thousands of people bragging about how many they killed, and with what kind of trap, gas, or gun. There is no fur or meat value to humans.

Hunters and trappers kill groundhogs near roads and fields, and go from farm to farm. However, hunters and trappers often believe that in their own enjoyment of killing a gentle species that poses no threat to humans they may be doing some kind of a service to mankind. Many believe that killing groundhogs will keep them from overpopulating the environment. However, such is not the case. “Studies show that even when all the woodchucks are trapped out of an area, others from surrounding areas quickly move into the vacated niche,” says Laura J. Simon, field director for the Urban Wildlife Program of the Humane Society of the United States. But there is also another problem. In Spring and Summer, baby groundhogs live in the underground tunnels. Killing their mother will lead them to starve to death.

Natural predators keep the balance of nature to reduce overpopulation. Like most animals, groundhogs have a sense that allows them to breed to keep the species alive in areas of extreme danger; as the danger is removed, instead of breeding, groundhogs will actually stabilize population growth.  Hunters and farmers claim groundhogs leave holes that can damage tractors or cause injuries to horses and livestock. However, the perceived reality of that happening may be far greater than the actual risk, according to Simon.

The second major reason people kill groundhogs is because of fear. “At least half the calls we get,” says Simon, “is because people are afraid that groundhogs will attack them.” But, groundhogs, says Simon, “are benign shy animals that will retreat to their burrows when they see humans, even small children, coming close.”

The third major reason people want to kill groundhogs is because the animals, in search for food, will destroy gardens. Ironically, the deforestation of America has allowed groundhogs to flourish. They prefer to build their complex multi-level burrows on open ground at the edge of forests. This open view gives them protection from predators, while providing sources for their appetite for grub, grasshoppers, earthworms, berries, and various fruits and some vegetables; for water, they eat grasses and leaves. But as agricultural land is also destroyed to allow the construction of everything from parking lots to condos to supermarkets, groundhogs, like most species, are shoved from their own homes. That’s when homeowners see the holes in their lawns and some garden crops chewed up. Animal-friendly gardeners will plant extra so animals and humans can share the food.

Some of the methods to get rid of groundhogs cause more injuries to humans than to groundhogs. People have also used broken glass or poured concrete into the entrance and exit holes of the burrows. But, these methods, says Simon, don’t work.

There are several non-lethal humane ways to effectively discourage the animals. One of the best is to enclose the garden in a three foot high mesh fence, “with the top part left wobbly to discourage the animals from climbing,” says Simon. To discourage groundhogs from burrowing under the garden and then coming up to munch, the Humane Society advises homeowners to purchase a four-foot tall roll of green garden fencing. The lower 12 inches of mesh should be bent at a 90 degree angle and run parallel to the ground, away from the garden, to create a “false bottom,” and secured to the ground by landscaping staples. Homeowners can also discourage groundhogs by placing objects that reflect sunlight and continually move in the breeze, such as tethered Mylar party balloons. Simon says ones with big eyes “seem to work best because they create a predator image.”

Groundhogs and people can co-exist, with neither harming the other. Killing groundhogs just because we can is never a good reason.

[For further information about humane methods to deal with groundhogs, contact the Humane Society at www.hsus.org or by phone at 203-393-1050.  Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist. His latest book is the critically acclaimed mystery thriller, Before the First Snow.]

   

Why Wisconsin Votes As It Does

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

Wisconsin, the badger state, constitutes a perennial battleground state. Like many of its Midwestern neighbors, the state leans Democratic but remains readily willing to vote Republican. While voting for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama by double-digit margins, the state also came within one percent – twice – of voting for Republican candidate George W. Bush.

These voting patterns have quite interesting historical roots. Indeed, they stretch back for more than a century.

To examine these roots, let’s first take a look at a map of German immigration patterns in 1890:

Map of German Immigrants is Wisconsin, 1890

This map, derived from the New York Times, graphs the percentage of German-born immigrants in each Wisconsin county from the 1890 census. There is a striking correlation between this map and Wisconsin in the 2004 presidential election:

Map of Wisconsin, 2004 Presidential Election

In that election, Senator John Kerry clung to Wisconsin by a razor-thin 0.4% margin, winning 49.7% of the vote to Mr. Bush’s 49.3%. As this map indicates, counties heavily settled by Germans form the Republican voting base which Mr. Bush relied upon. This pattern persists even more than a century after the height of German immigration.

It is also still quite powerful. Out of the twelve counties with greater than 20% German-born immigrants in 1890, only one (Milwaukee) voted for Mr. Kerry.

There are exceptions, of course – and German settlement patterns do not form the entire picture of Wisconsin’s electoral demography. Milwaukee, for instance, gave 61.7% of its vote to the Massachusetts senator, despite being composed of 38.9% German immigrants in 1890. This is due to its relatively high black population today and corresponding white flight, which depleted the city of its German-American population. Scandinavian settlement patterns in non-German rural Wisconsin, to use another example, account for their Democratic vote today (interestingly, rural Wisconsin constitutes one of the last Democratic bastions in rural America).

Nevertheless, the overall pattern is still quite striking. A more detailed look at Wisconsin in 2004 only strengthens the link:

Detailed Map of Wisconsin, 2004 Presidential Election

As is evident, the correlation between German immigration and Wisconsin’s electoral geography finds a resemblance in both degree and strength. The most Republican-voting regions, located along the southeastern portion of the state, also counted themselves highest in German immigrants in 1890.

Finally, this type of demographic analysis can be used to explain why states vote as they do in far more than just Wisconsin. From Democratic strongholds in former cotton-growing areas of the Deep South to South Dakota’s Native-American and Democratic-voting reservations, history offers a fascinating insight into contemporary politics.

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

Arizona’s Law and the Bennett Law

The recent signing of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant bill reminded me of another law passed a while ago. Commonly called the Bennett law, it aimed to make the teaching of English mandatory in all public and private schools. Like Arizona’s law, it constituted a response to large immigration, ignited by nativist sentiment.

The Bennett law reacted to similar anti-immigration feelings as those present in Arizona today. To many Americans, immigrants were unwanted foreigners taking away American jobs. They spoke a foreign language and came from a foreign land. They did not speak English and were accused of refusing to do so. They had a different culture and stayed together amongst themselves; assimilation did not seem to work with them. They seemed less loyal to the United States and more loyal to their homeland. At core, they seemed “un-American.”

I am speaking, of course, about German immigrants in Wisconsin.

The year was 1890, and America was faced with a massive, unprecedented inflow of immigrants. They were coming from all over western Europe – Germany, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. Many were Catholics – a religion some did not consider Christian in those times. Others considered drinking alcohol as quite normal, in contrast to American norms.

Bennett’s law came about because of these cultural clashes. Originally an ordinary school reform, it became engulfed in controversy when Assemblyman Michael Bennett of Dodgeville added an amendment requiring all schools to teach English.

During this time, many German-Americans went to private, parochial schools set up by the immigrant community; these were especially prevalent in rural Wisconsin. Because many did not teach English, the Bennett law posed an existential threat to these German schools. The Democratic Party, which had a substantial base amongst immigrants, came out strongly against the law; the Republican Party, dominant in Wisconsin at the time, strongly favored it.

Republican supporters, including Governor William Hoard, argued that learning English was vital to succeeding in America. Mr. Hoard stated:

I have, I believe, as friendly a feeling towards our German-American population as any man in this country; and if I did not believe that the Bennett Law would assist in the advancement of their youth I would certainly oppose its continuance upon our statute books. I want the little German boy and girl, the little Norwegian, the little Bohemian and the little Pole, the children of all foreign born parents, to have the same chance in life as my children. Without a knowledge of the English language they can not have this chance.

They also appealed to good-old American patriotism and the much-admired American tradition of the “little red schoolhouse.” One newspaper wrote:

The little district school-house is very dear to the American heart, and whoever lays the hand of violence upon it will evoke a storm of wrath which no power on earth can withstand. It is impossible to tell what motive may lurk behind this opposition to the Bennett law, but if its opponents are preparing for an attack upon our public schools, let them beware.

Opponents, on the other hand, called it an unconstitutional intrusion of the government into private affairs. They argued, moreover, that the Bennett law was pointless; German-Americans were quickly learning English anyways.

The main contention, however, was that the Bennett law constituted an attack on the German-American immigrant community. One German newspaper heatedly claimed that:

To such people who will recognize as “Americans” only those whose ancestors lived here during the war of the revolution, the German who clings to his home customs and to his glorious native tongue is an annoyance. It is not sufficient for them that we should become Americanized – we want to do that in the proper manner, of course – but they want us to become de-Germanized. And they think that can be accomplished first by destroying German schools. Their calculation is certainly a correct one. Aside from immigration, which it is sought to restrict in every possible manner, the German element in America has its greatest strength in the German schools. In destroying these, as the Bennett law seeks to do, the German element would lose one of the main conditions of its existence.

Matters came to a head in the 1890 gubernatorial election, when Republican Governor William Hoard, a powerful advocate of the Bennett law, faced re-election. Mr. Hoard lost by an overwhelming margin to Democratic candidate George W. Peck, backed by the angered German-American community.

In the following years the Republican Party’s dominance upon Wisconsin politics was severely disrupted. Their 7-2 House congressional majority was upended, turning into a 8-1 Democratic majority. Democrats gained a two-to-one majority in the state legislature, and Wisconsin voted Democratic in the 1892 presidential election (for the first time since 1852). Although other factors, such as an unpopular tariff, were also responsible for this, the Bennett Law certainly played no small role. It was promptly repealed in 1891.

Fortunately for the Republican Party, German-American loyalty to the Democratic Party did not last. Their self-consciousness as an immigrant community gradually faded away as they were absorbed into the American melting pot. Today individuals with German heritage tend to vote Republican. Some undoubtedly are influenced by nativist sentiment against those supposedly foreign, non-English speaking, assimilation-resistant Latino immigrants flooding into the United States.

But if the history the Bennett Law tells one anything, the Latino immigrant of today is the German immigrant of yesterday. In half a  century labeling Latinos as “foreigners” may sound as strange as talking about a German-American immigrant community.

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

 

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