Meet Buckeye Chuck, Ohio’s official weather-forecasting groundhog
Every morning on Feb. 2, a small crowd forms around a local radio station in Marion, about 50 miles north of Columbus. They’ve come from all across the state to answer a vital question.
“Is he going to see his shadow?” a WMRN radio broadcaster shouted to a crowd at the 2020 celebration, riling them up into a chorus of naysaying.
The gathering of a couple hundred winter coat-clad people in Marion hardly rivals the tens of thousands that flock to Pennsylvania each year to watch the famed Punxsutawney Phil’s winter forecast on Groundhog Day. But Ohio’s weather-forecasting woodchuck, Buckeye Chuck, has a charm all his own.
Each year, it’s said the iconic creature crawls out of his burrow and takes a look around. If he sees his shadow and goes back in the burrow, Ohioans settle in for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t, it’s an early spring.
“People dress up, they bring signs, they get pretty excited about it,” James said. “And, to get excited at 7 in the morning … standing outside at a radio station, you're my kind of people.”
Many creatures across the state claim to be able to predict how long winter will last. There’s Poppy the Skunk in Lancaster, Benny the Bass in Buckeye Lake, Concord Casimir the Cat outside of Cleveland, Walnut the Hedgehog in Dayton; even a stuffed groundhog named Willie from Toledo.
But, Buckeye Chuck is the state’s official groundhog. He has been since the state legislature declared him so in 1979. And he’s pretty good at it, according to WMRN radio host Paul James, who helped lead Marion’s Groundhog Day Celebration for years.
“He is about 75% correct in his 40 or so predictions that he’s done,” James said. “He does way better than that rodent to the east.”
The tradition began in the ‘70s, with WMRN broadcast personality Charlie Evers. The celebrated radio host took notice of the furry creatures popping up in the woods behind the station.
“He kind of befriended a groundhog, for lack of a better term,” James said. “And on Groundhog Day, Charlie would do a show and had a lot of fun with it.”
The show got so much attention that the station decided to host a naming competition for their newfound friend. Local students dubbed the groundhog Buckeye Chuck, and the station added a Spam (which is literally ground hog) recipe contest. It’s been a Marion tradition ever since.
“In a town like Marion, we try to protect our traditions. We try to protect where we came from. We try to keep things alive,” James said.
But, there’s one logistical issue to continuing the beloved custom.
“Groundhogs, they don't live very long,” James said.
Every five to seven years, WMRN has to find a new groundhog. And that’s not as easy as you think. The station got heat from animal-rights group PETA about using exotic breeders without the right licensing to handle groundhogs. James said last year they weren’t able to find anyone with the necessary permits for the job.
So the 2023 celebration looked a little different: the taxidermied body of the original Buckeye Chuck took the stage. Needless to say, he didn’t leave his burrow, which, according to folklore, means a long winter.
Turns out, a stuffed Buckeye Chuck isn’t as accurate.
“We had a lot of warm days in February last year, so Buckeye Chuck was incorrect,” James said.
New kid on the block
This year, however, a new rodent will take a turn in the spotlight. Murray, resident groundhog at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is the latest Buckeye Chuck, joining a long line of legendary land beavers.
He’s just one year old, and, of course, he’s named after the star of the movie Groundhog Day. Jim Nemet, director of wildlife at the museum, said Murray imprinted on people after a family found him orphaned on the side of the road.
“He kept following them back towards their house, interacting with their dog,” Nemet said. “And so they took him to a local wildlife rehabilitator … And they said, you can't release him because he's just going to keep going to people … So that's why he came here to us.”
Now, he spends most of his days munching on carrots and kale. But, it’s not all veggie platters and laid-back relaxing. Murray has had to train for his big break.
“He's seen students. He's seen guests. He's been in the van driving around just the block,” Nemet said. “There's a little tunnel that he needs to walk through and then come out to make his grand entrance, so we need to practice all that.”
Nemet said no matter if his prediction is right or not, he believes Murray is a perfect fit for the prized job of Buckeye Chuck. He said Murray could encourage more Ohioans to learn more about their native neighbors.
His hope for this Groundhog Day? Six more years of stardom.