LIKE the rest of the Eastern United States, Punxsutawney, Pa., is ready for spring.
The community of 6,740 got socked with its earliest heavy snowstorm on record, severe cold, last month's blizzard, and a sudden thaw that initiated the worst flooding in 20 years. That is why the town will watch with unusual interest today to see what its famous groundhog will predict.
At dawn, Punxsutawney Phil is scheduled to rouse himself from hibernation, sniff the winter air, and determine whether the last six more weeks of winter will be severe or mild. If he sees his shadow, according to the legend, winter still holds some nasty surprises. If he doesn't, spring is right around the corner.
''Sometimes, it surprises me what he forecasts,'' says Bud Dunkel, president of the Inner Circle of the Groundhog Club, which coordinates the town's annual Groundhog's Day festivities. ''I think we've had enough winter. And I'm hoping and expecting that he'll give us a forecast of no shadow and good weather.''
Phil, however, has a pessimistic streak. In 110 years of winter prognostications, he's missed his shadow only 12 times. And no one here is about to second-guess the world's most famous weather-mammal.
For most of his life, longtime resident E.S. (Ted) Swartz has logged the daily weather, using three thermometers and two barometers rigged up in his house. Based on those records, ''I would say the worst of winter is behind us,'' he says. But who does he ultimately trust for late-winter forecasts? ''The groundhog, of course.''
The notion that groundhogs have predictive powers dates back at least to early Europe. (Some Punxsutawney residents link it to ancient Egypt.) The Scots had an old saying:
''If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,
There'll be twa [two] winters in the year.''
According to the legend, conquering Roman legions brought that notion to Germany, where residents dreamed up the idea that the hedgehog would (or would not) cast a shadow on the late-winter day. Centuries later, when Germans settled Pennsylvania, they imbued the area's hedgehogs with the predictive power. Groundhog Day was born.
The first recorded mention in Punxsutawney came in the local newspaper of Feb. 2, 1886, which reported the groundhog had not seen his shadow. A few years later, and for completely different reasons, Punxsutawney residents began holding end-of-summer groundhog feasts. (They ate the animals back then.) The annual treks received so much publicity - thanks to an enterprising local newspaper editor - that in 1906, the Groundhog Club decided to capitalize on the animal's forecasting legend.
The gatherings have grown over the years. An anonymous wire-service reporter dubbed the groundhog ''Phil'' and the name stuck. In 1993, the Bill Murray movie ''Groundhog Day'' boosted Punxsutawney's fame even more. Instead of several hundred people gathering before dawn every Feb. 2, several thousand began showing up. Last year's event drew more than 10,000 people.
For all the hype surrounding Phil, he remains surprisingly noncommercial. No admission is charged. And if the town is overrun with groundhog souvenirs - commemorative knives, T-shirts, and chocolate candies - the money goes to promote the town.
''This is the last, maybe great, American tradition that has not sold itself out,'' says Bill Anderson, publisher of the local paper and Groundhog Club member.
As for the star of the show, he spends most of the year in a glass-faced enclosure next to the children's book section of the local library. He hibernates beginning in the late fall, which is the great thing about being a late-winter prognosticator. You get to sleep through most of the really bad weather.