Turkey Buzzards, Groundhogs, and Other Animal Signs of a Late Thawing Spring

Turkey_Vulture_headshot

Maybe listen to this creature, the turkey buzzard.

Spring is finally here, but in many places throughout Arkansas the first day of the season was filled with rain, snow, and temperatures dipping well below freezing. In the Ozarks where I spent the first few days of spring, there were snow flurries and icicles hanging from the eaves. Despite what the groundhog said, spring didn’t come quite so early.

Most historians agree that the American version of Groundhog Day began as a Pennsylvania German custom derived from multiple European traditions. The belief goes something like this: If the groundhog emerges from his burrow spring is on the way. If it’s sunny and he sees his shadow, he retreats back into his burrow to wait out the six more weeks of winter.

Throughout the United States Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2nd.Yet according to the late Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph, many people throughout the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks have longed considered February 14th the real Groundhog Day and plan their plowing and planting dates accordingly. For many old-timers, pinning one’s spring hopes on the events of February 2 was certain to bring frozen seedlings.  In Randolph’s 1947 book Ozark Superstitions, (which was later reprinted under the title Ozark Magic and Folklore), Randolph provides a transcript from the Springfield (Missouri) Press dated 1933 that explains one old-timers’ feelings on the February 2nd date:

What’s all this talk about February 2nd being Groundhog Day?” asked a man at the courthouse Wednesday who is old enough to know what he is talking about. “It was always February 14th until late years…my father and my grandfather, and all generations from Adam down to 20 years ago pinned their faith to February 14—St. Valentines’ Day. That is the correct date, and it matters not what the younger generation says about it.” (Page 28).

Weather signs have always been important in farming and gardening communities and can encompass everything from predicting rain to the dates of the first freeze. Vance Randolph mentions several non-groundhog related ways old-time Ozarkers predicted the arrival of spring including watching the moon. Even if the days were already growing warm, notes Randolph, many Ozarkers believed that if the moon appeared “just a hair father north than it should be,” anther killing frost was on the way. Some Ozarks claimed you could predict spring by watching the Bodark trees. Once they show a bit of green the last frost passed.  Others paid attention to the songs of killdeers and frogs, and many argued the arrival of the turkey buzzard was a reliable sign spring is on the way.

Do you recall hearing anyone in your community talk about February 15th being the true Groundhog Day? What are other weather signs that let you know spring is on the way? I’d love to hear your stories and possibly share them in upcoming columns. If you are interested in the research at the McElroy House, a local Folklife and oral history organization based in Yell and Pope Counties, including our recent garden research, you can visit www.mcelroyhouse.wordpress.com. Thanks so much for reading!

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with theCourier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.