Today, also known as Ground Hog’s Day, a furry creature named Punxsutawney Phil emerged just after dawn amidst mud and ice to report that he did not see his shadow.
Poor Phil. It’s winter where he lives some 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here in Hawaii, it’s sunny and 78 degrees. (How soon can you get here?)
We don’t have groundhogs in Hawaii—although we do have a hog that lives on the ground. (Are there any other kind? Well, I suppose there’s the kind that sleeps in a bed, also known as a dog—but not mine, heavens no.)
The pig was an early introduction to Hawaii by pioneering Polynesians who found only two mammals residing here upon their arrival—a bat and a seal. Since humans first stepped foot in Hawaii, the list of terrestrial mammals has grown to include dogs, rats, goats, mice, cats and on all of the main Hawaiian Islands except Kauai, mongooses. (That’s right, “mongooses,” not “mongeese,” according to my Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which weighs more than Phil and could help me get in shape for paddling season, should I decide to participate this year.)
The tradition of Groundhog Day is a German superstition. If a hibernating animal emerges from its wintry enclosure to see sun and cast a shadow, winter will last another six weeks. If there is no shadow to be seen, hallelujah, spring will come early.
The closest we have to hibernating animals could be the Laysan albatross. I know, I know. You’re thinking, “Of course, she's going to work albatrosses into this story. The woman has albatrosses on the brain.”
So, here goes: After incubating inside its egg for the past 65 days where it’s dark—that’s the hibernating part—our Laysan albatross chicks are pipping their way into the light at colonies on Kauai (Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge) and Oahu (Kaena Point). The process can take up to two days. Here in the main Hawaiian Islands, Laysan albatross chicks emerge from their calcium enclosures in early February. Today, on Groundhog Day, even. When they finally do shake off the last of their egg bits, they fall flat on their big, fat bills, exhausted. Soon, however, they are preening themselves, stretching their legs, and flapping their pre-pubescent wing-stubs. All the while, their parent—mom or dad, whoever happens to be sitting the nest at the time—watches but it does not help. The struggle for a Laysan albatross chick to emerge from its shell is a strengthening one for the chick and important for its survival. But the parent doesn’t just sit there. It coos to its chick the whole time. I like to think the parent is cheering the chick on and giving it comforting and empowering words of encouragement--like any good parent. The chirping goes something like this: Eee. Eee. Eee.
There is no such legend about Laysan albatross chicks casting shadows or predicting the arrival of spring. Blessedly, for mainlanders, Phil predicted an early spring this year. For us in Hawaii, of course, it’s spring year-round. (Insert winking, smiling emoticon.)