Avian Meteorology

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Thanks to the latest technology, up-to-the-minute weather forecasts are right at our fingertips. But imagine a world without cable weather networks, smartphones, and the Internet. How about no satellite imaging or Doppler radar? Or even pioneering equipment like mercury barometers or hair-tension hygrometers? How would we manage?

Long before these advances, people obviously needed some means of predicting the weather, even if on a short-term basis. Forecasting was especially critical for agrarian and seafaring communities. As sustenance and survival were at stake, even the most rudimentary forms of meteorology could be helpful for those involved with harvesting crops, fishing, and conducting maritime trade.

Identifying types of cloud formations and wind direction were obvious aids. Another important element of early forecasting, though, involved noticing birds’ reactions to weather conditions. For example, sailors would take heed if seagulls headed inland or stormy petrels gathered near ships, both common indicators that rain was on the way. Agriculturalists would observe the behavior of domesticated birds such as chickens and geese for weather cues (1). The Old Farmer’s Almanac includes tips based on all of the above.

Harbingers of Rain and Drought

The appearance of certain birds were usually taken as positive signs regarding sowing and harvesting. The annual overflowing of the Nile River, responsible for the fertility of flooded soil, became associated with the Egyptian ibis, who arrived as the waters began ascending (2). In Germany a saying arose related to the timeliness of a certain bird’s call: “If the bittern’s cry is heard early, we may have a good harvest” (3). That statement likely is in reference to the bellowing sound emitted by the great bittern, which migrates to parts of Europe.

Of course, unwelcome sightings of fowl exist for the opposite reason. For instance, in some regions of Kenya, pastoralists view cattle egrets as a warning. Mercy Muiruri and Patrick Maundu explain that “… to the Maasai community, the presence of Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) is a sign of an impending drought or dry spell. It alerts them to move their herds to areas with greener pasture” (4). Yet to the Scottish residents of Orkney a visiting clamour of rooks, usually associated with rain throughout most of the British mainland, may indicate famine (5).

Rather than foretelling severe conditions, though, many birds are actually thought of as prescient signs of wet weather. The swallow and cuckoo, both common symbols of spring, are often connected with rain, in particular the former when flying close to the ground (6, 7). In parts of Africa, calls from certain species of hornbill and hamerkop are believed to herald showers (8). Several birds, too, are deemed as precursors to storms; however, the woodpecker is perhaps the most renowned worldwide for its association with thunder (9, 10). Such imaginative leaps, I guess, are understandable when considering the poignant rapping of the bird’s repetitive, percussion-like strikes.

More than a Slight Chance of Accuracy?

During the wintertime, birds that appear in locations that experience frozen precipitation are thought of as “snowbirds”. (Florida is a well-known spot for migrating snowbirds, too—but those are of the human variety!) When I grew up in Virginia, I would occasionally hear folks refer to a sighting of dark-eyed juncos on the ground as a sign of inclement weather. Of course, other fowl in North America commonly thought of as “snowbirds” include the snow bunting, pine grosbeak, and common redpoll. In some Native American traditions, a covey of grouse during the winter meant a snowstorm was on the way (11). And according to Ute Indian lore, “To see crows, magpies, and blackbirds in the same tree at once, squabbling and fighting … is a sign that there will be heavy snowfalls the coming winter” (12).

A vast amount of weather lore regarding birds is prevalent throughout the world. How reliable our feathered friends are for forecasting purposes, though, is still debatable. Undoubtedly, they seem to be able to detect atmospheric fluctuations. Researchers have discovered that air pressure changes can affect avian behavior, resulting in certain birds flying lower, avoiding direct headwinds, and modifying their feeding practices (13). So some weather lore at least may actually be insightful.

See for yourself, though. If you can, test out some of the sayings. Also, feel free to share below bird-related weather lore in your area. Comments are welcome. In the meantime, just don’t expect avian meteorologists to ever replace the weather crew and gadgetry at your local TV station.

Sources:

  1. “Weather Proverbs and Prognostics: Birds”, The Old Farmer’s Almanac: http://www.almanac.com/content/weather-proverbs-and-prognostics-birds.
  2. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 17.
  3. Daniels, C.L., Stevans, C.M. (editors). Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World, Volume II. Detroit: Gale Research Company – Book Tower, 1971. p. 587.
  4. Muiruri, M.N., Maundu, P. “Birds, People and Conservation in Kenya.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2011. p. 288.
  5. Newell, V. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts. Tring, Herts., United Kingdom: Shire Publications, 1971. p. 53.
  6. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. pp. 181, 200.
  7. Ingersoll, E. pp. 152, 223-224.
  8. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. pp. 138, 332.
  9. Armstrong, E.A. p. 109.
  10. Cocker, M., Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 340.
  11. Daniels, C.L., Stevans, C.M. p. 640.
  12. Daniels, C.L., Stevans, C.M. p. 585.
  13. Miner, J. “It turns out birds have a knack for forecasting weather and adapting to changing elements, Western University researchers find”, 11/19/2013. The London Free Press: http://www.lfpress.com/2013/11/19/western-university-researchers-find-a-link-between-barometric-pressure-and-the-daily-routine-of-birds.
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