In another year of showing off his season-predicting talents virtually, local groundhog celebrity Balzac Billy is ready to make his annual appearance on Feb. 2 at the Blue Grass Ltd. Nursery, Sod and Garden Centre in Balzac.
While members of the media will be invited to cover the event on the east side of the Queen Elizabeth II Highway next Wednesday morning, the public will have to watch the Groundhog Day proceedings via a Facebook livestream due to a continuing surge in COVID-19 cases.
According to Sheena Haffner, Blue Grass’ marketing manager, over 10,000 people watched last year’s livestream, and the gardening centre staff are hoping for similar numbers this year.
“It was hundreds of people during the actual event and then within the next few days it got to over 10,000 people. It was very successful,” Haffner said.
Last year, the local groundhog forecaster emerged from his burrow in the Blue Grass parking lot and spotted his shadow, correctly anticipating another six weeks of winter.
Shortly after sunrise on Feb. 2, which will be right around 8:15 a.m., Balzac Billy will pop out from his burrow. If he sees his shadow, Airdrie residents can expect six more weeks of winter. If Billy cannot see his shadow, the furry forecaster predicts an early spring is on the way.
According to Steve Neubauer, who works at Bluegrass and has been involved in organizing the Groundhog Day event since 2004, Billy is pretty accurate most of the time. He explained that a compilation of all the different Groundhog Day groundhogs and their accuracy indicated Balzac Billy came out at the top. According to those results, Billy had an accuracy of 83 per cent.
“We've had years where he hasn't gotten it quite right and there have been others where he was right on, so I'd say we're in the high 70s. He's lost a bit of his accuracy,” Neubauer said.
Billy incorrectly predicted an early spring in 2019 and 2020.
Haffner said the long-standing tradition of Groundhog Day is a great way to shift people’s minds toward the positive outlook of spring, in the middle of what is usually a taxing winter.
“This time of year, everyone kind of gets down in the dumps. Christmas is over, New Year's is over, we're going into some of the coldest times of the year, and everyone wants something to look forward to,” Haffner said. “It's just a really fun tradition that's all about joy, thinking about spring, thinking about the warm days and the long warm nights we'll have. It's a nice thing for our community.”
The tradition has been hosted by the Bluegrass centre since 2011, according to Neubauer, but the first official record of Balzac Billy dates back to 1978. That means this year’s event marks Billy’s 44th year.
Neubauer explained that Billy started off by sharing his predictions via local radio stations from the Balzac diner.
Twenty-five years later, in 2004, Balzac Billy hosted his first official pancake breakfast at the Balzac Community Hall. At the time, a mascot costume was purchased and Billy became the personified rodent the community knows and loves today.
Over the years, more and more people came out on groundhog day. In 2011, Bluegrass took over due to safety concerns at the community hall. The Balzac community hall is right next to a set of railway tracks, and cars and visitors would block the tracks during the event.
“Here at Bluegrass we have better parking and better facilities,” Neubauer said. “In 2020 we had about 200 or 250 out for the [event]. It's on hold now until COVID-19 passes.”
That event usually includes a free breakfast, live music, and often some other forms of entertainment.
Unfortunately, Billy can’t predict the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and must continue to keep his distance from people so as to not spread the virus. Last year, he donned a face mask for the first time.
“They say six more weeks of winter, but in this part of the world, we just say an early spring or a late spring,” Neubauer laughed.
The livestream will begin shortly before 8 a.m. and people will be able to tune in via Bluegrass’ Facebook or Instagram pages – @BlueGrassCGY