As published, Country Living Magazine, November 2007.

Predicting the weather - folklore style

By Karen E. Porter

What do animals, insects and birds know that we don’t? Perhaps many things. But one thing that has fascinated man for centuries is their keen instinct toward changes in the weather.

By observing creatures of the wild and other signs of nature, our forefathers could predict whether the day was going to bring rain and unsettled weather or sunny skies and dry air. Not surprisingly, most of their predictions were accurate.

Today, many of us don’t rely on natural signs to aid in foretelling the weather. We simply check our newspaper, television or radio for the forecast and leave the worries of prediction to the meteorologists.

But predicting the weather “folklore-style” can be interesting and fun. It can be a project for the family, the classroom or a learning experience at a summer camp.

According to folklore, there are many signs in determining the weather. For instance, heavy dew in the morning was a guarantee of a clear day, while absence of dew on the ground warned of rain. Hence the proverb:

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.

Crickets were extremely accurate weather instruments. It’s said that the faster the chirp, the warmer the temperature. If you count the number of chirps a cricket makes in 14 seconds and add that number to 40, you’ll get the Fahrenheit temperature of the cricket’s location.

A halo surrounding the moon indicated that a warm front was approaching and rain was likely. The number of stars within the halo or circle predicted the number of days before the storm’s arrival. Three stars within the circle around the moon would mean rain was just three days ahead.

Morning and evening sun played a large part in forecasting the weather, as told in this old proverb:

Red sky in the morning,
Sailors take warning.
Red sky at night,
Sailors’ delight.

If trees produced an overabundance of nuts, it was believed that a long and harsh winter was on the way. A bountiful harvest was nature’s way of providing food to sustain wildlife through the longer winter days ahead.

To see birds gliding was a folklore sign of unstable air and approaching rain. It was believed that rising air currents made gliding easier than flying.

In cold weather, a bright moonlit night indicated a heavy frost. If snow stuck to the trees and fenceposts, it was believed that the snow would not stay, and warmer days were ahead.

Farmers kept their eyes to the sky, as cloud formations were thought to be a great indicator of a coming storm. People gave these clouds nicknames, such as “mackerel sky.” This cloud formation, resembling the scales of a fish, foretold of rain. Wispy clouds called “mares’ tails” also were a sure
sign of forthcoming rain.

By observing the crops, one could predict the severity of winter. Many believed that thick husks on corn in the late fall were signs of a very cold and bitter winter.

Sound also played a major part in predicting weather change. In winter, the loud, clear sound of a train whistle to the south foretold of a thaw. The reason for this was that a shift in wind direction from north to south was thought to bring warmer temperatures.

A January thunderstorm warned of freezing temperatures for the following day, although a thunderstorm in the fall meant something quite different, as indicated in this rhyme:

Thunder in the fall,
No winter at all.
Thunder in the spring
Warm weather will bring.

The sight of turtles crossing roadways meant a dry spell was on the way and that they were seeking a spot where water was plentiful to tide them over. Cows huddled together in the corner of a field indicated a brewing storm. The direction a cow’s tail faced also was a weather indicator. A tail pointing west meant clear weather. To the east, however, it meant rain. The reason for this was that an animal keeps its back to the wind, enabling it to see an oncoming predator. And rain usually is carried on an east wind. Another indication of rain was to see many birds roosting on wires or gathering on beaches. The loud, shrill buzz of the insect known as the cicada warned of long, hot days ahead.

A sign of the type of winter in store was indicated by where a muskrat built his home — the higher the den, the warmer, and therefore wetter, the winter.

Flies clustered on windows and screens predicted a cold front was on the way.

Even superstition played its part in predicting the weather, although this method proved less accurate than natural signs. By placing 12 onions in a row outside at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, it was believed that one could predict the wet months of the coming year. Each onion represented a month. Observing which onions collected moisture within the first hour of New Year’s morning showed the months in which one could expect a lot of rain.

Fact or fiction? Many people still believe they can predict the weather by observing nature’s signs. The only way to know for sure whether it really works is to give the folklore techniques a try. Then test the skills of yesterday against today’s technology.

Karen Porter is a freelance writer from Lodi.

Copyright 2007 Ohio Rural Electric Cooperatives, Inc.