By Alan Freed
PUNXSUTAWNEY, Pa. (Reuters) - Punxsutawney Phil, the Pennsylvania groundhog renowned for his ability to forecast the onset of spring, did not see his shadow after emerging from his burrow on Tuesday morning, predicting an early spring.
Phil's prediction came at about 7:25 a.m. and was met with cheers from a crowd of thousands who participated under a clear sky and 21-degree Fahrenheit (-6.1 Celsius) temperatures in the folk tradition that has been embraced by winter-weary Americans for more than a century.
According to legend, if Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, Feb. 2, the cold weather will not loosen its grip on North America for six weeks. But if the morning is cloudy and no shadow appears, spring-like weather is supposedly around the corner.
The event, which typically brings out 30,000 revelers to the small, west-central Pennsylvania town, has become a television staple at the beginning of one of the coldest months of the year in the U.S. Northeast. In addition to the celebrated rodent, the pageant features an entourage of city elders in old-fashioned dress and top hats, presiding over the festivities.
The organizer, the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, is touting the 2016 event as "Phil's 130th prognostication," although technically it is not the same groundhog every year but one picked to represent the character.
Club spokeswoman Katie Donald said 1886 was the first year that the club trekked to Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney and the groundhog delivered a weather forecast. Media coverage of the event started the following year, she said.
"We go by the first trek, 1886," Donald said.
The event's website, Groundhog.org, notes that "groundhogs are one of the few animals that really hibernate. Hibernation is not just a deep sleep. It is actually a deep coma."
This year's Phil, however, has not whiled away the winter underground like most of his species, also known as woodchucks.
Instead, Phil and his handlers from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle made cameo appearances on Jan. 23 at Pittsburgh's Penn Brewery for the unveiling of its "Punxsutawney Philsner" draft beer and at a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game.
While he is still the most famous of the weather-forecasting groundhogs, Phil has had to compete a host of imitators in recent years. New York City, for example, has a groundhog of its own that has generated more than its share of controversy.
The 2009 groundhog bit the hand of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the annual Feb. 2 ceremony.
Five years after that, the groundhog was the injured party, when a groundhog named Charlotte fell hard to the ground after she wriggled out of the grasp of Mayor Bill de Blasio. The animal died of internal injuries a week later.
This year de Blasio will skip the event. Instead he is traveling to Iowa to campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton ahead of the state's Feb. 1 nominating caucuses. He will not return to New York until Tuesday evening, his office said, long after the groundhog is out of harm's way.
(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty, Frances Kerry and Chizu Nomiyama)