Organizers can definitely say — without hesitation — that no animals are harmed when Alberta’s groundhog Balzac Billy makes his appearance on Groundhog Day.
The man-sized groundhog mascot took over for real gophers in 2004, or earlier, said Steve Neubauer, breakfast organizer with Balzac Business Community Association that will host Friday’s Groundhog Day celebrations in Balzac at Blue Grass Nursery and Garden Centre with a free breakfast, from 7 to 9 a.m., and a live band.
Here was his 2017 prediction:
“The folklore is yes — there was actually a Richardson’s ground squirrel out in the fields west of Balzac,” Neubauer said Thursday about previous Groundhog Day gophers.
The crowd will start chanting Billy’s name at about 8:15 a.m. to wake him up.
He said the first recordings of groundhog predictions in Balzac began in 1978 making this the 40th anniversary, but there were others before that.
Balzac Billy is also a unique rodent because he doesn’t have a handler who announces the prediction, he said.
“We wanted to have something different from the other groundhogs. Our Billy is the only one that actually makes the call himself. Our Billy, he actually looks around and gives the thumbs up, thumbs down.”
He said Billy has become quite the idol and makes appearances at the annual Stampede Breakfast at CrossIron Mills, the Stampede Parade, and the Canada Day Parade.
“Kids love him. He’s got a huge following.”
An estimated 300 to 350 are expected out to see Billy on Friday.
“It’s amazing the great turnout we have and the enthusiasm of the crowd. Kids gather at the base. Lots of fun. We had about 500 our best year.”
Neubauer, who also works at Blue Grass, said the garden centre hopes that Billy won’t see his shadow and predict another six weeks of winter.
“Our fingers are crossed,” he said.
Dan Kulak, meteorologist at Environment Canada in Edmonton, said he didn’t want to preempt Billy’s prediction, but did say that the weekend looks coolish for Red Deer.
“Normal highs are -4C. Normal lows are -16C. We’re looking at temperatures somewhat below that. Central Alberta has a good chance at getting some snow on the weekend and temperatures of -20. It’s cold, but it’s still winter,” Kulak said.
January’s average temperature was -11.6C calculated by adding daily temperature highs and lows throughout month. Coincidentally the normal for January over the last 30 years is also -11.6C, he said.
“The warmest day of the month was 7.1C on Jan. 18. The coldest day was -35.1C on Jan. 1.”