Folksy Meteorology

Every now and then one hears an old folk saying that attempts to predict the weather. Some of these predictions are quite accurate, some are downright false, and some are borderline, i.e., sometimes true. The sayings are presented here by category of the predictor — for example, by various animal behaviors. Each saying is rated as T (true), F (false), or P (partly true). In some cases an explanation is given. As you will see, many are primarily of interest to the farmer, but some are of more general interest.


When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say: There cometh a shower: and so it is (Luke 12:54)      T

In the north temperate zone, where most weather patterns move from west to east, a storm cloud in the west (or a western quadrant) will place you directly in the path of the storm.

When it is evening ye say, It will be fair weather: for the sky is red. And in the morning, it will be foul weather today: for the sky is red and lowering (Matt. 16:2–3).       T

Our Lord, in so speaking, knew that we see the setting sun through air that will reach us tomorrow, as pressure patterns of atmosphere move from west to east. If the setting sun shines through dry air, the sky is reddest; if it shines through moist air, the sky is grayish or yellowish.

Sunset color


This day, celebrated on February 2nd, usually heralds the coldest weather in America. Because of this it became a great weather-forecasting date, when the farmer looked to the sky and hoped to predict the weather for the next six weeks.

If Candlemas be fair and clear,
Two winters will you have this year.

Because in some European countries winter is often over by this date, while in America the coldest days are yet to come, the early pioneers called the American February a "second winter." The idea of a second winter is also hinted at in this old rhyme:

Half the wood and half the hay
You should have on Candlemas Day.

Very true, for a farmer's winter store would be about half used by this time, and the other half would sustain him during the remainder of the bad weather.

On this day in Europe, the bear and badger were supposed to come out of their lairs. If they saw their shadow, they were frightened back for another six weeks, and cold weather would last that long. In America the saying refers just to the groundhog.


When apple blossoms bloom at night
For fifteen days no rain in sight.


When April blows her horn [thunder]
It's good for hay and corn.

If it thunders on All Fool's Day [April 1st]
This assures your crop of hay.

The colder the April, the better the farm crops.      F


A bee was never caught in a shower.      P

Bees will not swarm before a storm.      P

When bees stay close to the hive, rain is close by.      T

All these bee sayings are from observation by the beekeeper, who is always a good weather prophet. He will tell you that "a swarm of bees in July does little more than bring a dry."


South or north, sally forth;
West or east, travel least.

Here is an old saying about the migration of geese, which bird-watchers say is true. It means that when a flock of geese (on migration flight) flies in a true northerly or southerly direction, the next day will bring clear weather. But when the flock varies its flight to the west or the east, the next day will bring rain or snow.

Swallows and bats fly close to the ground before a rain.      T

This is often true, because swallows and bats have very sensitive ear mechanisms, which are affected by sudden changes of air pressure. When there is a sudden drop in atmospheric pressure, they will skim the surface to get as close to the earth as they can and thereby get as high an air pressure as there is at the time. [They are also probably following the bug population.]

Sea gull, sea gull, sit on the sand;
It's a sign of rain when you are at hand.

Generally speaking, birds will roost more during low pressure than during high pressure. Before a hurricane great flocks of birds will be seen roosting. Perhaps the lowering atmospheric pressure (thinning of the air) makes flying harder. The lessening of natural updrafts would also account for the birds "resting it out."


When cattle lie down as they are put to pasture, rain is on its way.      F

A cow with its tail to the west makes weather the best;
A cow with its rail to the east makes weather the least.


Fog from the seaward, weather fair;
Fog from the land brings rainy air.

Much fog in the autumn,
Much snow in the winter.

These two are from Massachusetts. They are usually true in that state, but there seems to be no reason to classify them as general weather truth.

Fog in the morning, sailor take warning;
Fog in the night, sailor's delight.

There are too many reasons for fog for this saying to be classed completely true.

Three foggy mornings will bring a rain three times harder than usual.      P

This one is from a New Jersey almanac. Three foggy mornings in a row, it reasons, would need that much stronger a rain to purge such a static atmosphere.


Cobwebs on the grass are a sign of frost.      T

Not always, of course, but the "cobwebby grass season" is during late Indian summer, which usually occurs after the first frost and before the second.


Where lightning strikes, go dig your well.      P

It has often been true that wherever lightning hit, underground water was close underneath. Lightning is the sudden discharge of opposite electrical charges. Since water is a good conductor, a tree whose roots are in contact with underground water makes an excellent target for lightning.


Rhododendron Thermometer

At 60 degrees Fahrenheit and above, the leaf is completely open and points in the same direction as the stem. As the temperature drops, the leaf curls more and more tightly and drops more and more, until finally, at 20 degrees and below, it's pencil thin and points straight down.

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