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Flushing Phil shadowless 3 days before snowfall

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Looking more like a pair of Mad Hatters in their oversized black top hats than borough president and parks commissioner, Claire Shulman and Henry Stern ushered in Groundhog Day Friday with the Queens Zoo’s own prairie dogs: Flushing Meadows Phil and Corona Kate.

The two furry friends scurried out of a miniature replica zoo and onto a red carpet as students from Sunnyside’s PS 150, who themselves were dressed as groundhogs, rushed in to see whether the prognosticators had seen their shadows.

The kids, holding posters of praise for spring, cheered as Stern announced that the dogs were shadowless and “spring has sprung.”

According to tradition if a groundhog, or in Queens’ case a prairie dog, sees its shadow, six more weeks of winter are expected. If the groundhog does not detect his shadow, spring has arrived.

But Flushing Phil and Corona Kate may have jumped the gun a bit since three days after their fearless forecast a nasty winter storm dumped at least three inches of very wet snow on Queens.

For 130 years the National Weather Service has relied on groundhogs , zoo director Robin Dalton told the crowd of eager children with a straight face.

“But the National Weather Service was upgraded. They were helped by satellites during the Nixon administra­tion,” he said.

The Queens Zoo, however, has forgone satellites. The zoo has held fast to tradition and continued to employ the dogs for their weather readings each year.

Stern explained to the students that the Feb. 2 date for Groundhog Day was selected because it is midway between the (Northern Hemisphere) winter solstice of Dec. 21 and the vernal equinox on March 21.

Focusing less on science, Shulman told the kids she had a Groundhog Day contest running with Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari.

“He thinks his groundhog is a better predictor than our prairie dog. I think he’s wrong.”

Asmika Dangol, a sixth grader, said the children had dressed as groundhogs to lure out the day’s honorees.

“If we dress up like the groundhogs, we can persuade the groundhog to come out,” she said.

The kids agreed that a shadowless prairie dog was high on their wish list for the day.

“The sooner the spring comes, the sooner we get out of school,” Dangol said, explaining that she and her classmates will graduate this year.

Though this was the first time the students had come to the zoo for Groundhog Day, it was hardly a dry run. The kids, who have their own little zoo back in their classroom — with five rabbits, two hamsters, and three guinea pigs — have scrutinized the pets in past weeks for signs of an early spring.

For Shulman, this was the last Groundhog Day over which she would preside as borough president. But she looked forward to next year at the zoo, anyway.

“I can come whether I’m borough president or not,” she said.

Reach reporter Jennifer Warren by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 155.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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