RALEIGH, N.C. -- Every Feb. 2, a slew of weather-predicting rodents lift their noses in the air to test winter's strength, offering groundhog-hole predictions from Punxsutawney, Pa., down to Lilburn, Ga.
But among all fur-covered meteorologists, the best-guesser's crown belongs to a 5-year-old critter who lives indoors and doesn't even hibernate: Mortimer, the pride of Garner, N.C.
In two years, Mort has aced the forecast twice, betting on last winter's early flame-out and the chill of 2010. Though nearly a rookie, he bats 1.000.
"He's a very intuitive groundhog," explains Stephanie Shaffer, manager at Garner's White Deer Park, which hosts Mortimer on Wednesday. "He has a good gut feeling. At least, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it."
Groundhog Day's origins date to the mid-18th century, when German immigrants in Pennsylvania brought to the tradition of taking signals from the subterranean animal, also known as the woodchuck or "whistle pig."
If the beast sees a shadow, legend has it, he sinks back underground, frightened, waiting out six weeks of winter. No shadow? Spring soon. Mortimer, though, deviates from tradition by whispering in Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams' ear.
According to a National Geographic Society study, groundhogs get it right about one out of every three times.
Statistics, of course, are murky -- subject to interpretation.
Mortimer's big-city neighbor Sir Walter Wally -- who samples the February air in Raleigh on Wednesday -- owns an accuracy record closer to 60 percent.
But he's been guessing much longer. And, to be fair, the groundhog now known as Mortimer, in his early days, actually portrayed Wally. The names get passed from critter to critter. So there's some overlap.
Both Mort and Wally, though, can school Punxsutawney Phil, their more-celebrated Yankee kinsman. After more than a century, Phil's accuracy rating comes in at a dismal 39 percent, according to Stormfax.com.
Other groundhogs in the standings:
--Gen. Beauregard Lee, Lilburn, Ga.: 94 percent.
--Jimmy, Sun Prairie, Wis.: 80 percent.
Often, holiday groundhogs come to prominence from hard-luck backgrounds, victims of car accidents and hunters, missing fur and teeth.
But Mortimer is domesticated, donated by a breeder to CLAWS, a wildlife rescuer outside Chapel Hill, N.C. Spared the cold and hardship of wilderness life, his senses are keener.
"Most of the groundhogs are pulled right out of hibernation," said Kindra Mammone, CLAWS executive director. "Mortimer has all this time to think about it."
And on Wednesday, the aging oracle will try to extend his streak to 3 -- whiskered perfection.
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