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A celebrity groundhog dies shortly before his big day

Milltown's popular Groundhog Day festivities are canceled this year, following the death of the local celebrity, who for the last several years has been given the task of predicting whether there will be an early spring or six more weeks of winter.
Alexander Lewis/MyCentralJersey
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USA Today Network via Reuters
Milltown's popular Groundhog Day festivities are canceled this year, following the death of the local celebrity, who for the last several years has been given the task of predicting whether there will be an early spring or six more weeks of winter.

Updated February 2, 2022 at 10:24 AM ET

Milltown Mel, a groundhog who has for years offered his weather predictions on Groundhog Day, has died, his handlers say. They say Mel "recently crossed over the rainbow bridge" — and their scramble for a replacement rodent before Feb. 2 was fruitless.

Mel rose to celebrity status in Milltown, N.J., giving residents of the Garden State an idea of when to plant their springtime seeds. But he died at "a tough time of year, when most of his fellow groundhogs are hibernating," according to his handlers, who are known as the Milltown Wranglers.

"We will work hard on getting us a new weather prognosticator for next year," the Wranglers said, adding that New Jersey residents should "check out what all of Mel's cousins have to say" about the end of winter.

The longest-running Groundhog Day tradition in the U.S. centers around Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania. Other season-predicting animals include Dunkirk Dave and Staten Island Chuck — Mel's neighbors in New York — and Buckeye Chuck in Marion, Ohio.

"Very sorry to hear about Milltown Mel going to Groundhog Heaven," said Dunkirk Dave's handlers, Bob Will and Bill Verge, when NPR reached them for comment.

The average lifespan for a groundhog in the wild is from 3-4 years, Will said. But in captivity, he added, they can live for 8-12 years — and he's had two groundhogs that surpassed age 20.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Milltown Mel 2.0 (@milltown_mel)

If it seems like you're heard this story of a New Jersey groundhog dying before, that's not just a Groundhog Day effect: in 2016, Sussex County's prognosticator, Stonewall Jackson, died on Groundhog Eve, according to NJ.com.

Mel spent last year's Groundhog Day in quarantine, due to the pandemic. But that didn't stop him from predicting an early spring for his community, which sits roughly halfway between Trenton and Newark.

"Yay!!! Mel - you are my favorite Groundhog!!!" a fan wrote in response to the rodent on his Facebook page.

The tradition of consulting a rodent for a sign of an early spring or a late winter stems from the Christian tradition of Candlemas — which itself has roots in pagan observances.

"Candlemas was originally a Celtic festival marking the 'cross-quarter day,' or midpoint of the season," according to the Almanac website. "The Sun is halfway on its advance from the winter solstice to the spring equinox."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.