Proverbs and folklore about the weather are often quoted, but can we depend on these? For centuries, those whose living depends on the weather — farmers, shepherds, sailors, fishermen and hunters — have observed their surroundings and connected changes in nature with changes or patterns of weather. Frequently they invented proverbs or ditties to predict the future, and some of their ideas do seem to forecast short-range weather changes.
Red sky at night, sailors (or shepherds) delight; red sky in morning, sailors (shepherds) take warning. We’ve all heard this proverb, and there may be some truth to it, since there is a scientific basis on certain atmospheric conditions. Another common saying is: Rain before seven, clear by 11. This one, too, seems to prove right quite often (unless it’s one of those three-day rains!).
A ring around the sun or moon means rain or snow is coming soon. This is also dependent on conditions of the atmosphere and often proves true. The halo is a layer of cirrus clouds which may warn of an approaching warm front and low-pressure area.
The ditty about dew is another one with some scientific basis:
When the dew is on the grass, rain will never come to pass.
When grass is dry at morning light, look for rain before the night.
The main problem with these proverbs is that they will not be valid for all times or in all places. Much of the folklore we quote actually originated in Europe.
Animals are often used to predict short-range weather changes, but these usually have little or no scientific basis. For instance, my father used to predict rain if the cattle went to the far end of the pasture, where there was no water hole. Did the cattle know the grass was going to be wet and they wouldn’t need a drink?
Another prediction based on cattle states:
Tails pointing west, weather’s at its best.
Tails pointing east, weather is least.
This might make sense, for observations show that cattle and horses prefer to stand with their backs to the wind, rather than have the wind in their faces. Since in Canada, west winds typically mean good weather, and east winds mean unsettled weather, the tail blowing might show what the weather will be for the next few hours. (One Internet website states that any reference to cow or horse tails in the sky actually refers to cirrus clouds, which may indicate a change of weather.)
However, all these examples are for short-term forecasts. When it comes to seasonal or long-term predictions, folklore proves much less accurate. Still, that doesn’t stop old wives’ tales and myths from flourishing about seasonal changes. Many lighthearted verses can produce a laugh, especially if they sometimes prove true.
As winter starts, there are a few proverbs to consider. For instance: If snow falls on unfrozen ground, look for a mild winter, might be one to check out. Or for last month: A warm November is a sign of a bad winter.
Wildlife is often used as the basis for predictions about winter. If animals’ fur is thick, prepare for cold weather. (This one makes sense.) But what about: When squirrels bury their nuts early, it will be a hard winter. I’ll have to start watching the squirrel in my backyard more closely.
One piece of folklore I’ve been checking out lately is the one about hornet and wasp nests. I began to research this when I discovered two such nests not far from our house — both located high in treetops, at a height of about 20 feet or so. If wasp nests are high, a severe winter is nigh, was the first prediction I found. A similar dire prediction proclaimed: The higher the hornet nest, the deeper the snow. One more legend announces: The height of the wasp nest equals the snow depth. (I sincerely hope not!)
Further research, however, turned up a contradictory forecast: If hornets’ nests are built in treetops, a mild winter is ahead; nests close to the ground mean a harsh winter is coming. I think maybe I’ll go with this prediction.
Or what about the height of a beaver dam or the size of muskrat houses? A year ago I noticed a very high beaver dam, and last winter had plenty of snow and cold weather. This year on the same creek, the dam was much smaller. Scientists suggest this is more likely a result of the stage of the water when the dam was being built — but you never know!
Perhaps we can try to base forecasts on our garden produce. For instance, did you examine your onions this fall? Folklore says:
Onion skin very thin, mild winter coming in;
Onion skin thick and tough, winter will be cold and rough.
I think I’ll give some of these seasonal weather proverbs a pass, especially the long-term ones!