Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Merv offers dose of cold reality

Six more weeks of winter

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OAK HAMMOCK MARSH -- At first light in the wetlands northwest of Winnipeg, the temperature was -28 C -- too cold for a groundhog to emerge from hibernation, let alone predict the weather.

Groundhogs, a species of rodent also known as woodchucks, are deep in hibernation at this time of year in southern Manitoba. As they slumber in their underground burrows, their body temperature hovers just above freezing and their heart beats about five times a minute.

"You couldn't wake up a groundhog if you wanted to," said Oak Hammock Marsh marketing co-ordinator Jacques Bourgeois, the "keeper" of Manitoba Merv, a prognosticating puppet who stands in for a real rodent on Groundhog Day.

At 8:01 a.m. on Saturday, the diffuse orange light of dawn allowed Merv to cast a faint shadow, suggesting southern Manitoba has another six weeks of winter in store.

Merv, who takes his name from Merv Farmer, a former owner of the Stonewall Argus newspaper, is actually a golf-club cover. He hasn't made a mistake in 20 years of forecasting, Bourgeois said.

But that doesn't count the year Merv was misplaced in a missing-puppet incident that forced Oak Hammock Marsh to order another inanimate rodent, Manitoba Maria.

"She lives in a box upstairs," said Nathalie Bays, an Oak Hammock Marsh interpreter.

Real woodchucks can emerge from hibernation in February in warmer parts of North America. Even during the summer, they're relatively uncommon on the flat terrain of southern Manitoba, where they're out-competed by Richardson's ground squirrels.

"They tend to build their burrows on slopes," Bourgeois said of groundhogs that nonetheless may be found in every corner of the province except for the tundra alongside Hudson Bay.

Unlike ground squirrels, groundhogs are not entirely passive. When threatened, they can use their claws to defend themselves. "Their first instinct is to run, but they will fight back when cornered," Bourgeois said.

Fighting back against winter, meanwhile, is utterly futile in southern Manitoba -- for people, rodents and celebrity golf-club covers.

bartley.kives@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2013 A4

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