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Is nature predicting a harsh winter?

Plants and animals are reacting to near-term weather

Over years of writing weather-related articles, the one topic on which I probably get the most emails is weather folklore. I have touched on this topic now and then, and did a fairly in-depth look at some of it last year. As I’m still in the process of gathering information to finish up our look at what the latest long-range forecasts call for this winter, I figured I would go back and look at weather folklore that pertains to winter, with some newer information.

The first saying is: An early departure of geese and ducks means a harsh winter ahead. During the last week of August, I noticed a fair number of geese flocking up in their signature “V” formations. Not sure whether this was evidence of an early departure, as I’m not an expert in goose behaviour, but to me it seemed a little earlier than usual. Now, a couple of weeks later, I haven’t noticed much on the goose front, so who knows what’s really going on, at least in my area. From my limited knowledge and experience watching geese, I find they will mostly stick around as long as there is fairly good weather and a decent food supply. That means there are two variables at play here: weather and food. If the fall weather turns bad earlier than expected, forcing geese and ducks to leave, that might mean we are in a longer-term pattern of cold, harsh weather that could continue into the winter. If it is a food supply issue — maybe brought on by a dry summer, for example — the geese may leave early, but that would not be linked to a possible harsh winter.

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Next one: Corn husks thicker than usual. Again, I’m no corn expert, but I do grow corn. This year my corn did not have thicker-than-usual husks; to me they seemed about the same as any other year. This type of weather predictor implies plants and animals have some built-in ability to know future weather and therefore prepare for it. For me, plants and animals react to near-term weather, which in some cases may coincide with what will happen in the future.

Next up: Woodpeckers sharing a tree and the early arrival of the snowy owl. I can’t really comment on either of these. I rarely see snowy owls, so I won’t know if they arrived early or not. Since they spend their summers in the far north and winter in southern parts of Canada, their early arrival could mean conditions in northern Canada have turned less hospitable earlier than expected, but whether that will lead to colder or more severe winter in southern regions is not clear. Northern Canada can be colder than average while southern regions are warm. As for woodpeckers, your guess on that one is as good as mine. I can’t see any logical reason for that one. I have seen more woodpeckers than usual so far this month, but is that because I’ve been outside more, or because the trees are becoming bigger and more mature in my area, thus attracting more birds?

August fogs

Next up is one of my favourites: Like snow? Count the number of August fogs. This one, or variations of it, I have been asked about several times before. I even wrote an article about August fog and future snowfalls back in 2016. While some people truly believe in this one, I am a little more skeptical. Heavy fogs in August would result from abundant low-level moisture, usually supplied by wet ground, along with clear, cool or cold nights. The clear, cold nights would mean we are in a weather pattern being dominated by arctic high pressure, which in the winter would mean cold temperatures. Whether a pattern present in August would continue or develop into winter, it tough to say. This year, at least in my region, I would say we did not see that much fog in August. Watching the feed of weather watches and warnings from across the Prairies, I did not notice many fog advisories anywhere.

The second-last one is one that I have heard about since I was a little kid: An abundance of acorns means a hard winter. As with the corn husks, this one relies on the idea that plants can predict future weather. The growth of acorns is more likely determined by current weather and by weather in the previous year. Also, like a lot of other trees that produce fruits or seeds, oaks tend to have bumper crop years that are then followed by one to several years of small crops. Scientists believe acorns cycle between small and large crops not because of weather, but as an evolutionary response to ensure their reproductive survival. So, I can’t see how this would be able to predict a harsh winter. If it can, at least in my area, just like last year, there were not a lot of acorns this year.

Finally: How high the hornet’s nest, ‘twill tell how high the snow will rest. Not sure if this also works for wasps’ nests, but while I have seen hornets I have rarely seen their nests. Same idea as other plants and animals predicting future weather seasons ahead. I haven’t seen any big wasp nests so far this fall, but last year I saw two that were about 20 feet up a tree, and while it was a cold winter, there wasn’t that much snow.

Just like the last time I wrote about this, I’ve run out of room. I will definitely continue this topic again soon. If you have your own winter weather predictor, feel free to let me know at [email protected].

About the author

Co-operator contributor

Daniel Bezte

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the U of W. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park.

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