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Grosse Pointe Farms

Families warmly welcome groundhog during cold Winterfest

February 4, 2013

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Taryn Mountain, the off-site program coordinator for the Howell Conference and Nature Center, holds Woody the groundhog as she talks about the animal's diet and lifespan for a crowd of parents and kids during Winterfest on the Hill in Grosse Pointe Farms Feb. 2.

Tired of the cold, snowy weather? You might not have to put up with it for much longer.

Not if Woody, Michigan’s official groundhog, is correct. On Groundhog Day Feb. 2, she — yes, Woody is a girl — predicted an early spring. The furry guest from the Howell Conference and Nature Center got a warm welcome from Mayor James Farquhar and an enthusiastic audience of parents and kids during the sixth annual Winterfest on the Hill. With Winterfest coinciding with Groundhog Day this year, officials wanted to mark the occasion in a special way.

“We did try to get Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell here, but they couldn’t come,” quipped Farquhar, making a reference to the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” which starred the aforementioned actors.

A couple of children eagerly shouted, “Hi, Woody,” as her handler, Taryn Mountain, brought the groundhog out of her crate. Mountain is the off-site program coordinator for the Howell Conference and Nature Center. During an official ceremony at her home base, Woody didn’t see her shadow, meaning that spring should come early this year. Woody’s predictions about spring have only been wrong three times over the last 14 years, Mountain said.

She said groundhogs are also known as woodchucks or, in the South, whistle pigs — an allusion to the high-pitched sound they make when they’re scared. Woody is believed to be about 15 years old, and has been at the nature center since 1998, Mountain said. In the wild, a groundhog typically lives roughly 10 years. The 20-pound, 22-inch-long Woody enjoys a diet of fruit, greens and vegetables, but she “absolutely loves peanuts,” Mountain said. That’s fitting, given that groundhogs are the largest of the ground squirrels and the third largest rodent in the world, she said.

Mountain also introduced the audience to Olive, a 2-year-old Virginia opossum; Xena, a great horned owl; and Igor, a turkey vulture. At the sight of the large, not-so-pretty Igor, one little girl in the crowd screamed and ran away. However, Mountain pointed out that while they may not be attractive, vultures are an important part of the ecosystem, cleaning up the environment and reducing the spread of diseases, such as rabies, by consuming dead animals. Vultures are even used by gas companies to detect gas leaks; Mountain said that because the smell of gas is similar to that of a rotting animal carcass, gas company employees can sometimes spot a gas leak by seeing where the vultures are circling.

“They help us out by keeping us safe,” she told the crowd.

Skip Moody, 5, of Grosse Pointe Farms, was most impressed with one of the feathered guests.

“I really liked the bird — the owl,” he said, wishing Xena could visit his home.

His mom, Frances Moody, said this was their first visit to Winterfest.

“We really liked it,” she said of the nature presentation.

Her husband, Blair Moody, concurred.

“It was very educational and entertaining,” he said. “The kids were having a great time.”

Woody’s name left some youngsters thinking she was a he, but there was no question about their enthusiasm for the cuddly-looking rodent.

“He was really cool,” said Christopher Bower, 9, of Grosse Pointe Farms.

His younger brother agreed.

“He was cool to see,” Chandler Bower, 7, said of Woody.

Cameron Custances, 4, of Grosse Pointe Farms, noticed Woody’s “sharp claws, but her older brother was more wowed by Woody’s winter coat.

“He’s really fluffy,” said Calvin Custances, 7.

City officials estimated the crowd for the presentation to be at least 125-150.

Farquhar, who presented Woody and her handler with a formal city resolution, was among those pleased by the high turnout for the “very family-oriented” event. He donned a top hat once owned by late City Council member Charles “Terry” Davis for the presentation. The hat is now part of the Grosse Pointe Theatre costume collection, a city official said.

“I thought it was just great,” Farquhar said of Mountain’s talk and the number of attendees. “It’s why our community is so special.”

City Council member Martin West was among several other officials on hand for the presentation.

“I thought this was a great event for the families,” he said. “Everyone seemed very interested. The presenter did an excellent job. It was very educational. And the mayor was totally in character.”

While some past Winterfests have been unusually warm, temperatures this year were appropriately chilly, and light snow gently fell on attendees, setting the scene better than any Hollywood movie. Winterfest attendees also enjoyed complimentary hotdogs, chili, ice-carving demonstrations, face painting, s’mores, games and more.

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