“Here at the Birmingham Zoo, we hold animal welfare to the highest standard as we possibly can,” said Rebekah Lane, who led the zoo event. “And every year, we continue to learn more things and more better ways to take care of these animals.”
Waking up Birmingham Bill from his hibernation to prepare for this event would be like waking up a person in the middle of the night to go run a mile, Lane said. Since he was in hibernation, Birmingham Jill, a Virginia opossum, gladly took his place.
“Believe it or not, Groundhog Day did not start with groundhogs,” Lane said. “It started with a bunch of different animals. … So today we thought it would be fun to start our own tradition here at the Birmingham Zoo.”
Before bringing out Birmingham Jill, spectators could learn about traditions from all over the world dedicated to the period of time between winter and spring. The first “destination” was Ireland, and guests learned about St. Brigid’s Day while volunteers from the audience held up a snake named Mr. Whiskers.
“Snakes go through brumation,” said Becky, the first travel guide. “What they do is they go to sleep. They won’t eat; they won’t drink water. It’s kind of like hibernation. On St. Brigid’s Day, the tradition goes that if you see a snake, that means that spring is coming because the weather is warming up.”
The second travel guide was Gina, and she helped the audience travel to Croatia and Serbia. She said that these countries use bears to determine if spring will soon return.
“Bears don’t go through hibernation either,” she said. “They go through torpor, and torpor is a lesser version of hibernation. It basically means that bears can come out when it’s warm and sunny outside, even though it’s still winter. So what they figured out was that if the bear came out of its den, and he saw its shadow, he would be scared, go all the way back into his den, and there would be six more weeks of winter.”
Instead of bringing a bear onto the stage, Gina brought out another animal from the same area of Eastern Europe — Bilbo, the Eurasian Eagle Owl. As this “silent flyer” flew from one post to the next, the audience couldn’t hear a sound.
Germany was the next destination, and travel guide Sam took the audience there. In Germany, he said, they use a badger to celebrate, and it is similar to other Groundhog Day traditions: if he sees his shadow, there will be more winter weather. Because the Birmingham Zoo does not have any badgers, Sam brought out the badger’s close cousin: Pepe, the striped skunk.
“They’re both in the group of animals known as mustelid,” he said. “And mustelid means stinky.”
Finally, Lane took the audience back to Alabama, and explained why the United States celebrates Groundhog Day.
“This is where things get a little bit interesting,” she said. “In Germany, the badger was called the dachs. And what happened was, when the Pennsylvania Dutch decided to come over and settle in the United States, the word dachs translated into something different, and that was the word for groundhogs.”
Lane then introduced Birmingham Jill, who took her place on top of a Birmingham Zoo trash can.
“We use this trash can as a representation,” Lane said. “Because opossums are very good climbers, they often like to get into people’s trash cans.”
There was not a cloud in the sky on Groundhog Day in Birmingham, so Birmingham Jill saw her shadow. As tradition goes, this means that there will be six more weeks of winter weather.
“What’s really good about Virginia Opossums is they don’t hibernate like groundhogs,” Lane said. “So she is able to come out pretty much any time we need her. So if we I’ve her food, she can come out, and she is a very willing subject.” Lane also pointed out that Virginia Opossums are the only marsupial native to North America.
After the event, guests had the opportunity to smile next to Birmingham Jill for a photo while she munched on treats.