As we celebrate Groundhog Day and all bemoan Punxsutawney Phil's prediction for six more weeks of winter, an entire population of rodents who are directly related to the famous Phil lay sleeping right here in the Wenatchee Valley.

Marmots are essentially smaller groundhogs with less colorful coats, and Washington State is home to three different species of these podgy pals.

The Olympic marmot is indigenous to its namesake peninsula and is only found in the Evergreen State, while the hoary marmot calls the higher confines of Washington's Alpine forests home. But the Yellow-Bellied marmot has an address that's right here in the Wenatchee Valley!

If you've ever been to some of the parks on either side of the Columbia River which feature any rocky outcroppings or hillsides, then chances are you've caught a glimpse of our fuzzy neighbors.

Several years ago, I took to regularly feeding a rather prolific population of these yellow fellows on the Douglas County side, and it was through this process that I became inspired to learn more about what makes them tick.

The first year I made their acquaintance, I started hanging out with them around late March and faithfully returned to their company every week with a big bag of healthy snacks. Yellow-bellied marmots are quite particular about what they will put in their little rodent bodies as I discovered, and prefer good-for-them eats like carrots and raw nuts. So if you want to feed them, leave the Doritos and Cap'n Crunch at home, they'll turn their noses up at the notion of such things making them sick and cutting their lives short for sure.

As summer progressed that year, I headed out to feed my friends in late July and received quite a surprise when none of them were to be found.

Usually when I'd make a visit, the slyest scouts among their ranks would spy me and begin sending word to the others so that when I arrived at the entrances to their rocky homes, they'd be lined up and ready to gorge their yellowy selves on my latest smorgasbord.

This time, however, when not a single member of the dozens which had been there only a few weeks earlier were around, I feared the worst; thinking perhaps that the park managers had poisoned them or that they'd all been driven from their craggy holes by some band of intruders.

I came to found out, however, that in fact, all of them had simply gone to bed. Marmots have one of the longest hibernation cycles in the animal kingdom, and the yellow-bellied residents of the Wenatchee Valley are usually tucked in for no less than seven months out of the year.

The news of their rather protracted circadian rhythms was surely interesting, but I still wasn't sure that I really believed it. So the following spring, when I returned to their bouldered bunkbeds for a look and found about six or seven of my old friends out and about and looking a little groggy, I was relieved to discovered that what I'd learned really was true and that we would all soon be reunited for more feasting fun!

And so while Punxsutawney Phil's prognostications for the whole of North America are nice, I submit to everyone who calls the Wenatchee Valley home, that spring has only truly arrived when the first yellow-bellied marmot of the new year opens its beady, ebony eyes and stretches its furry appendages to welcome another four to five months of life in the place we local residents all share with them.

So will Phil's visions of a typical winter cycle prove correct? Only time will tell, but it won't be the weather that will determine his accuracy - here at home at least - that will rely on his yellow-bellied cousins some 2,500 miles away.

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