Groundhog Day, a bizarre midwinter holiday revolving around psychic rodents, is considered by most to be a lighthearted affair that marries meteorology with folkloric tradition.

However, there’s a dark and often tragic element to this annual event of Pennsylvanian extraction — an element that’s all too often drowned out by all the noise over the possibility of hellish weather for another six weeks. I’m talking about woodchuck-on-human violence, political cover-ups and criminal indictments.

This year, the misfortune brought forth by Groundhog Day came early to Winnipeg, Canada, with news that the Manitoban city’s chief bucktoothed prognosticator, Willow, died just days before the big event.

The passing of Winnipeg Willow, a 5-year-old whistle-pig who was orphaned and subsequently rescued as a baby by the Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre (PWRC), came as a shock to her caretakers as she had not recently shown signs of illness of distress. Although an official cause of death has not been announced, the deceased likely succumbed to (ill-timed) natural causes given that the natural life expectancy of groundhogs is between 4 and 6 years old. By all accounts, Willow had lived a full and happy life.

"It was so sudden — we're all taking it really hard right now," Willow’s handler Sheila Smith told the CBC. "It was something we were not expecting."

Provided that not any old woodchuck can predict the weather and/or make public appearances, PWRC has decided to cancel its annual Groundhog Day event, an event that was to be held at a Cabela’s sporting goods store filled with hunting/trapping accoutrement and a sizable menagerie of taxidermied animals. Certainly morbid environs for a groundhog of such stature!

PWRC shared the sad news on its Facebook page Saturday morning:

We are in complete shock and sadness with tears coming down our face to announce the passing of Winnipeg Willow this evening. She was acting her normal self this morning and eating a carrot but came in this evening to find her gone.

The Winnipeg-based nonprofit goes on to share a thoughtful obituary for one of its most beloved educational ambassadors (get a hanky ready):

Willow was born in spring 2010 and was brought to the PWRC after her mother was killed by a dog. She was being raised for release until she broke her leg in an outdoor enclosure. With the extra handling and time spent in care, she became too friendly towards people to be released back into the wild. She was adopted into our educational program and visited many schools and students. She loved kale, green leafy lettuce, broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes, snap peas and of course peanuts. She had her moments, especially around February 2nd where she could get a bit grumpy but otherwise loved to go out.

PWRC notes that based her recent behavior, Willow would have likely predicted the arrival of an early spring.

Although Willow’s passing no doubt throws a sorrowful wrench into Manitoba’s Groundhog Day festivities, the province won’t go completely without a meteorological forecast given by a large ground squirrel. Oak Hammock Marsh, located a quick drive north of Winnipeg near the town of Stonewall, is home to Manitoba Merv, a marmot meteorologist with quite the track record. It should be pointed out that Manitoba Merv, who has been in the weather forecasting businesses since 1993, is, in fact, a puppet.

The fact that Manitoba (normally) has not one but two celebrated groundhogs, one real and one a puppet, comes as something of a surprise. Honestly, I had no clue that Groundhog Day was observed outside of the United States where top ‘hogs include Staten Island Chuck of New York City, Ohio’s Buckeye Chuck, Georgia’s General Beauregard Lee, Jimmy the Groundhog of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, and, of course, Pennsylvania’s one-and-only Punxsutawney Phil.

As it turns out, in addition to the late Winnipeg Willow and Manitoba Merv, there are weather-forecasting Canadian groundhogs of note including Balzac Billy (Alberta), Fred (Quebec), Oil Springs Ollie (Ontario) and Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia).

Canada even experienced its fair share of Groundhog Day drama in 2003 when an official in Wiarton, Ontario, was accused of covering up a double homicide committed by none other than Wiarton Willie, an albino groundhog that serves as the town’s mascot and main source of tourism revenue. The murders — both of the victims were Willie’s understudies — were kept hush by the official as to not negatively impact the flow of the almighty tourism dollar.

Via [The Independent], [CBC]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Winnipeg Willow, noted Canadian weather forecaster, dies days before Groundhog Day
It's all up to you now, Manitoba Merv.