Woody the Woodchuck exiting her home on Feb. 2, 2021 to make her prediction (Howell Nature Center)
By Monica Spencer On the frigid Tuesday morning of February 2nd, 2021, Michigan’s official groundhog Woody emerged at the Howell Nature Center to make her meteorological prediction that we are in store for six more weeks of winter. Although not as famous as her Pennsylvanian cousin, Punxsutawney Phil, Woody the Woodchuck has consistently appeared over the past 21 years to greet the people of Howell Michigan with news of an early spring or the dreaded extended winter, but this year was a little different.
Groundhogs Day began as a small event of mammalian meteorology in 1887 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but has grown into a national tradition to celebrate the end of winter, the coming spring, and Bill Murray. Like other venues around the country the Howell Nature Center uses Groundhogs Day as an opportunity to engage the community. “In person we get 50 to 100 hardcore Groundhog Day fans that are willing to stand outside in the dark and freezing temperatures,” said Elizabeth Schultz the Community Engagement and Programs Manager at Howell nature Center. Unfortunately, this year those hardcore Groundhog Day fans had to contend with more than just the cold and dark.
Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, the Howell Nature Center made the difficult decision to shift from an in-person event to online making Woody’s 22nd prediction her first virtual one. Wildlife Education Coordinator, Evin Luehr said going virtual this year was to ensure that their Groundhog Day event was accessible to as many people as possible. And the combination of safety and accessibility paid off for the Nature Center in the form of 3,000 individual registrants from roughly 700 different households to watch day of and a total of 1.2 thousand views just four days later.
The choice to go online also provided the Howell Nature Center new and exciting educational opportunities. In previous years, the Nature Center would speak about the benefits of woodchucks, but due to the cold temperatures programming had to be brief. “Going virtual we were able to do a twenty minute behind the scenes educational program,” Schultz said. “And we saw a very positive response from our community who is so excited to learn about Woody.”
The virtual shift, although the responsible choice, did leave some Nature Center goers missing the crowd, a sentiment echoed by some people watching from home. Katie Wilson, a proud member of the Howell Nature Center and regular attendee of past Groundhog Day events said that although she loves that the event was offered online live, she prefers attending in person. “It’s the experience of being right there in front of the groundhog and the display is what makes it a little more exciting, I know how hard it can be to keep everyone quiet to not scare her,” Wilson said.
Luckily for people like Wilson, the Howell Nature Center is looking forward to combining the traditions of an in-person event with the accessibility of virtual programming in future Groundhog Day celebrations. So with a little luck, next February 2nd when Woody the woodchuck makes her 23rd prediction it will be a choice for each of us whether to brave the cold and be part of the energy at the Howell Nature Center or enjoy virtually from the comfort and warmth of home.