Staten Island Chuck lives the pampered life one would expect of a celebrity groundhog, lounging in a heated nursery at the Staten Island Zoo and noshing on sweet potatoes as the world outside shivers.
But as Chuck gears up to make a weather prediction Saturday alongside heavily gloved handlers and politicians, his wild counterparts occupy the proverbial other side of the tracks.
Meet the Real Groundhogs of New York City, a population of perhaps a few dozen scattered throughout city parks, botanical gardens and cemeteries, some so isolated from any other groundhog community that naturalists do not know for sure how they got there.
Right now, of course, they are sound asleep, as groundhogs are meant to be in midwinter (the greenhouse conditions in Chuck’s lair throw his hibernation software out of whack). When the weather warms, though, they emerge from burrows all over: Astoria Park in Queens, Conference House Park at the bottom of Staten Island and Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx.
Sunny Corrao, a ranger with the parks department, recommended Fort Tryon Park at the relatively wild northern top of Manhattan, particularly the lawns just west of the heather garden and those along Broadway for sightings.
“You’re almost guaranteed to see groundhogs,” said Ms. Corrao, who regularly shows them off to passers-by through her binoculars and spotting scope.
Groundhogs also can be found in Central Park, hemmed in on all sides by concrete that poses a riddle as to their origin. The population there has been very small for a long time and possibly nonexistent some years, leading naturalists to doubt that groundhogs have survived there since before the park was cut off from other green space in the 19th century.
David Burg, president of the urban conservation group WildMetro, theorized that groundhogs in Central Park and other city greenswards were dumped there — or descend from groundhogs dumped there — by frustrated gardeners who trapped them.
“Big parks in urban areas very often get nuisance animals released,” Mr. Burg said.
Some of the groundhogs in the Bronx may be descendants of Project X, a parks initiative during the Giuliani administration meant to bring back native species. In 1997, groundhogs were reintroduced in Van Cortlandt and Pelham Bay Parks.
Other groundhogs in the northern Bronx might have followed grass-lined roads like the Hutchinson River Parkway. Possibly, a groundhog or two managed to navigate the streets, much the same way the city’s raccoons do, and cross a bridge into Manhattan.
“Teenage males are capable of many things,” said Robert S. Voss, a mammal curator at the American Museum of Natural History. “But it would be very, very high risk,” because groundhogs, unlike raccoons, are active during the day, when car, dog and human traffic is the highest. They also move slowly, and rarely venture far from their burrows or the green vegetation they consume in prodigious quantities.
Yet another challenge facing New York City’s groundhogs: their populations are so small and separated from one another, some probably have trouble finding mates, naturalists say.
One balmy Wednesday in January, Matthew Wills, who writes the urban nature blog Backyard and Beyond, ventured into Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn to show a reporter a burrow dug into a hill beneath a big family tombstone. He waited patiently for a while, but the groundhog did not show itself. In the breeze, it almost seemed as if faint snoring could be heard from within.
Mr. Wills recalled that he had seen a groundhog in the cemetery on two occasions.
The first time was in the spring of 2011. The second was last fall. He had just finished a participatory art project when he saw a whiskered face pop up among the gravestones.
“It was like seeing an old friend,” Mr. Wills said. “I would hope there’s more than one.”