(WHTM) – February 2 is Groundhog Day, when our attention turns to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where Phil the Groundhog predicts whether the weather will be spring or snow for the next six weeks.
The groundhog is always right. It’s the weather that’s wrong.
The traditions of Groundhog Day, seeing his shadow, six more weeks of winter and so forth, all come from Europe-where they don’t have groundhogs. Their animal of choice for these ceremonies is the hedgehog-which is why today is also National Hedgehog Day.
Hedgehogs are called hedgehogs because hedgerows are one of their favorite habitats. The “hog” part comes from their pig-like noses. Seventeen species of hedgehog can be found in Europe, Asia, and Africa.
And boy, are they cute!
No doubt about it, hedgehogs rank high on the “Awwwwwww!” scale. They’re small (most of them will fit in a adult human hand), fuzzy (at least on the belly-but the spiny bits on top won’t hurt you, as long as you don’t rub them the wrong way), and they make funny endearing little sounds.
A lot of people in a lot of states keep them as pets. But here in Pennsylvania, they’re illegal. There have been attempts to legalize them, but those efforts have died in the legislature,
The problem is these cute little animals are omnivores. They’ll eat fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, worms, slugs, bugs, caterpillars, mice, snakes, frogs, bird eggs, even baby birds. In the wrong places, they can be adorable little environmental catastrophes.
How bad can it become? Just ask the folks in New Zealand.
Before humans arrived, the only native mammal species in New Zealand were bats. Animals on the island evolved without pressures caused by mammalian predators and were totally unprepared to deal with them when they arrived. Rats, possums, weasels, and hedgehogs have pushed many native species to the brink of extinction.
So how did hedgehogs get in the mix? Back in the heyday of European colonization, there existed “acclimatization societies.” Their purpose was to ease the transition of settlers to their new locales by introducing species familiar to them from home.
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In 1870 the first European Hedgehogs (Erinaceus europaeus occidentalis) were brought to New Zealand by the Canterbury Acclimatization Society. Even more hedgehogs were then brought in to deal with snails and slugs in gardens. Then in the 20th century, New Zealand-born hedgehogs were released. But by the 1920s people realized the hedgehogs were beginning to have an effect on local species. A bounty was placed on hedgehogs, but progress in reducing their numbers has been slow.
For many New Zealand species, the presence of hedgehogs has been a disaster. Ground nesting birds in particular have seen their numbers drop because hedgehogs eat eggs and chicks. When the weather turns cool, sluggish lizards become choice prey. Frogs both native and non-native are also on the menu.
That menu is not restricted to vertebrates. Hedgehogs will munch down on rare species like the weta, giant centipede, and Powelliphanta snails.
In spite of all the efforts to curtail their numbers, hedgehogs have moved into just about every available habitat in New Zealand. And because they are so cute, and it’s not their fault this is happening, New Zealanders not only have to eradicate hedgehogs, they have to feel guilty about it.
Pennsylvania is one of only four states that bans hedgehogs, the others being California, Georgia, and Hawaii. The five boroughs of New York City also prohibit them, and local ordinances across the country also apply.
The states surrounding Pennsylvania (New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and Ohio) are all on the “hedgehog friendly” list.
So if you find a hedgehog wandering around in Pennsylvania odds are it escaped, or got dumped, from somewhere else.