For years and years, folks have been using signs of nature to help predict the weather, especially predicting the upcoming winter weather. And there are many signs of nature that have been used for these predictions, including Aunt Betty’s aches and pains in her bunions or corns, and cousin Vern’s twinges of rheumatism or arthritis. So here are a few of those signs that we have collected over the years:
Animals predicting a bad winter: -Squirrels frantically gathering nuts in the fall -Watching to see if geese fly south earlier than usual -Squirrels building nests low in the trees -Fur on animals (cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, squirrels) is thicker than usual -Fur on rabbit’s feet is thicker than usual -Squirrel tails bushier than usual / squirrels fatter than usual -Mice working hard to invade the home and barn -Birds eat berries earlier in the season -Birds huddle on the ground -Even the breastbone of a cooked turkey helps to predict the winter (light colored indicates a mild winter / dark blue or purple says a harsh winter is ahead) -Fatter than usual skunks (who’s going to measure them?)
Plants predicting a bad winter: -Husks on corn is thicker than usual -Leaves drop before giving good fall colors -Heavy holly and dogwood berry production -Excess numbers of acorns, hickory nuts and walnuts -Numerous pine, spruce and fir cones at the tops of the evergreens -Weeds growing taller than usual in the summer (predicting deeper snows) -Rough / thick onion skins -Fruit trees blooming twice
Weather predicting the weather: -If the first week of August is hot, it will be a cold winter -The more fog during August, the more snowfall. -If September is hot, look for a mild winter at first, but the end to be very cold -Warm falls are followed by cold winters -Lots of rolling thunder during late fall means a harsh winter -An early killing frost means a harsh winter to come -A dry summer means a cold winter
Smoke predicting the weather: -Smoke from a chimney flows toward or settles on the ground, it will be a harsh winter -There is a chance of snow if it is cloudy and smoke rises -It will snow within 26 days of smoke from the chimney settling on the ground
Insects predicting a bad winter: -If there are more spiders in the fall than usual -Thickness of spider webs -Ants build their nests high -Heights of hornet nests in the trees -And of course, the famous Woolly Worm! (Heavy coats, lots of them moving around, slow movement, amount of black color on the bands, seeing them crawling before the first frost are all signs of a bad winter) Oh yes, the all-time favorite and most common predictor of the winter to come is the Wooly Worm, also known as Wooly Bear, Fuzzy Bear, Black-ended Bear, Banded Woolly Bear (which is the name approved by the Entomological Society of America), and Hedgehog Caterpillar. The scientific name for Wooly Worms is Pyrrhactia Isabella, and they are the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth, and orange – yellow moth with a wing span of about 2 inches. (The genus Pyrrhactia has many species; some are solid black, without any bands and others have bands varying in sizes.)
Wooly Worms are most noticed in the fall, as they travel about, especially crossing the streets, looking for that perfect place to curl up and spend the winter, which is usually under bark, a rock, a log, etc. Their heavy coats, along with a natural organic antifreeze they produce, helps them over winter. They can actually survive -90 degree temperatures! (Yes, there are woolly worms in the
In the spring, it warms back up, begins to feed for a while, then forms a cocoon, pupates, and emerges as the Isabella Tiger Moth. Fertilized females lay their eggs on a variety of plants including birch, elm, maples, asters, sunflowers, spinach, cabbage, grass, plantain, etc., where the eggs hatch, the small caterpillars begin to feed (making them herbivores), and the process starts all over again. There are usually 2-3 generations each year, and it’s the last generation that over winters as the Wooly Worm.
Wooly worms have very tiny eyes, and a limited range of sight. They also have 13 segments to the body, and 3 sets of legs (one each one the first 3 body segments). And they actually go through up to 6 larval stages before entering their pupal stage. That means molting 6 times before reaching the stage that you see in the fall, during which the color and size of its bands on the 13 body segments may change. And it’s those bands that folklore uses to help predict the winter.
Now, according to folklore, the amount of black on the Woolly Worm in the autumn varies proportionately with the severity of the upcoming winter. The longer the black bands, the longer, colder, snowier and more severe the winter will be. The wider the middle brown band, the milder the winter will be. And the position of the bands indicates which part of winter will be the coldest. If the head is dark, the winter starts out severe. If the tail is dark, the end will be cold. And, being the Woolly Worm has 13 body segments; folklore says each one (beginning at the head) corresponds with the 13 weeks of winter. So reading each band could actually forecast each week of the winter.
Other signs from the Woolly Worm include thicker coats mean colder winters, and if they seem to be traveling south, they are trying to escape the cold conditions of the north. On the other hand, if they are traveling north, that indicates a milder winter.
But, research has shown us that the Wooly Worm’s coloring is actually based on how long the caterpillar has been feeding, its age, and of course, the species. The better the growing season, the bigger it will grow, and this results in a narrower red-orange band in its middle. So, the width of the banding is actually an indicator of the current or past season’s growth, rather than an indicator of the severity of the upcoming winter. Coloring also indicates the age. These caterpillars may molt as many as 6 times before reaching adult size and the colors will change with each molt, actually becoming less black and more reddish. (And now you know the rest of the story!)
Nevertheless, I still think these folklore signs to help predict the winter weather is a lot of fun and in many cases, have been exactly on the mark! Take a look at the signs in your area, and see what happens this winter.
Ps…One of my favorite stories about predicting the weather is this one:
It was fall, and the Indians on the remote reservation asked their new chief if the winter was going to be mild or cold. Since he was an Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets, so when he looked to the sky, he couldn’t tell what the weather would be. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that the winter was going to be cold and the members should collect wood to be prepared.
But, also being a practical leader, after several days, he got an idea. He went to the phone booth and called the National Weather Service to see what the coming winter was predicted to be like. The meteorologist told the chief that it looked like it was going to be a cold winter, so the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared.
A week later, the Chief called the National Weather Service again and asked if they were still predicting a cold winter. His answer was a strong, “Yes, most definitely a cold winter.” He then went back to the tribe and ordered them to collect every scrap of wood they could find.
Two weeks later, the Chief called the National Weather Service again just to make sure they were still predicting a cold winter. “Absolutely”, they told the Chief, “it’s going to be one the coldest winters ever!”
The Chief then asked how they could be so sure about their predictions. The weatherman replied, “Because the Indians are collecting wood like crazy!”