Down through the ages, we’ve been handed a whole slew of whimsical sayings, proverbs and old-wives’ tales that supposedly help in forecasting the weather. Some of these have survived the test of time and experience, while others have not. Some have even stood up to the test of scientific analysis, which is an impressive accomplishment since many of them pre-date any kind of weather instruments or scientific knowledge. But in this column, let’s consider the many incorrect myths about weather.
Before highs, lows, fronts and jet-streams,there were shepherds, sailors, hunters and others whose lives depended on the weather. They relied on nature to warn of coming storms and they connected changes in nature with different patterns of weather.
As people learned more about their climate, they recalled their observations in the form of short sayings, proverbs or poems, and were passed on by word of mouth as being accurate and factual.
Many of these proverbs have persisted because they work, but many others don’t stand up to careful scrutiny. Part of this inconsistency comes about because some weather-lore brought by immigrants to the New World reflected a European climate quite different from North America’s. So not all the weather lessons learned “over there” could be applied accurately “over here.”
You may think this folklore is true or you may find it silly, but either way, it’s fun to ponder!
With the able assistance of David Phillips, a senior-climatologist with Environment Canada, let's consider some weather-lore that’s false and generally without reason, even if some of it does have considerable rhyme.
When a cow tries to scratch its ear,
It means a shower is very near.
When it thumps its ribs with its tail,
Look out for thunder, lightning and hail!
Onion skins very thin,
Mild winter’s coming in.
Onion skins thick and tough,
Coming winter cold and rough!
Certainly clever, but, according to Phillips, not accurate. He says that, in particular, weather-lore that attempts to predict for long periods is entirely without any physical basis.
Here are some other examples that don’t measure up:
• Heavy fur on beavers, muskrats, dogs and other animals indicates the approach of a severe winter.
• A warm January brings a wet spring.
• The wider the brown bands on the backs of woolly-bear caterpillars, the colder the coming winter.
• The longer a porcupine’s quills in the fall, the snowier it will be.
• Bushy tails on squirrels mean a cold winter is coming.
• If blue jays appear happy in the fields after harvest, it will be a mild winter.
How do you tell if a blue jay is smiling?
By the way, there’s a variation on this old-wives’ tale: If the Blue Jays appear unhappy in the field, it means they lost the Major League Baseball pennant race!
• Muskrats building their houses early indicates a tough winter.
• A cold winter means a hot summer, and, conversely, a mild winter means a cool summer.
This one reflects the old theory that “all weather evens out.”
My grandfather always used to say, “Ya’ know, if this winter is mild, we’ll pay for it in the summer. You betcha!”
• The higher a cottage owner piles his firewood, the colder the coming winter.
Sure. Or maybe he just wants the exercise or maybe he’s “aging” his wood like fine wine.
• If squirrels gather more nuts than usual, it will be cold.
So, this means that if you offer a squirrel 150 bags of nuts and he knows it’s not going to be cold, he won’t take all the bags? Not a chance! Squirrels and chipmunks take all the nuts you offer them, and then later they find a way to get into your shed and take more.
Sorry, St. Swithin
Also unreliable are old weather proverbs that connect certain kinds of weather with specific days or months. In reality, if the weather on that particular day does indeed match the proverb, it’s just coincidence.
So forget about the accuracy of St. Swithin’s Day and Groundhog Day — they’re certainly fun, but not valid.
This negative view also applies to these sayings:
• If it thunders on April Fool’s Day,
It means good crops of corn and hay!
• Rain at Easter gives slim fodder.
In answer to your question, “What the heck is fodder?” It’s coarse food like hay for cattle, horses, etc..
A contradictory version of a rainy Easter comes from France and reads:
• A rainy Easter means a good harvest.
• Every March, we hear, “In like a lion, out like a lamb,” and vice-versa. If the weather matches the proverb, it’s just luck.
Weatherlore relating to short-range weather conditions doesn’t fare any better than the long-range versions. The following are not reliable forcasters. Again, with apologies to our grandparents, many of whom were true folklore-believers:
• It’s too cold to snow.
• Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
• Thunder and lightning turn milk sour.
• Kill a spider and it will rain within 24 hours.
• A cat washing herself in a window means rain.
• When a dog howls at the moon, it’s a sign of snow.
• If a rooster sits on a fence and crows early in the morning, it will rain.
Or how about this one:
• If during a thunderstorm, a crowing rooster sits on a cat or dog that is drinking sour milk, while being bitten by a spider while it’s snowing and raining, and if the moon is visible, then within 24 hours, it will be the next day!