Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/March 1886/Animal Weather-Lore

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HAPPILY there still remain a few of those great, cavernous, open fireplaces, flanked by high-backed settles, whereon the young people love to lounge, while their elders, resting from the day's labors, talk drowsily of old times, recount the adventures of their youth, and repeat the tales of their grandfathers. As one of such young people, I have passed many long winter evenings, listening eagerly to what the septuagenarians might relate, and occasionally venturing a question or two, that more light might be thrown upon obscure portions of remarks made at the time. Then, particularly, are we likely to hear much of that very curious animal weather-lore that, for the past two centuries, has been handed down from father to son. Time and again, as the weather chanced to be discussed, I have heard some uncouth rhyme repeated, usually prefaced with the remark, "You know the old saying."

That all animals are more or less affected by coming atmospheric changes is unquestionable. This simple fact has been recognized the world over, but, unlike many other simple facts, has not resulted in leading to any important discoveries. It has, however, given rise to the innumerable sayings to which I have referred.

Inasmuch as the animal weather-lore current in England and Sweden dates far prior to the settlement of this country by the Swedes and English, it would seem probable that such sayings as now are or recently were current in South and Central New Jersey are merely adaptations of English and Swedish weather-lore to our fauna, just as the European names of the commoner birds found there were applied to those American species most closely resembling them; and so, any rhyme or brief saying referring to them would be applied to the analogous bird found here. This is eminently reasonable, for, if the given habit, voice, or other peculiarity of a European bird did, or was supposed to, indicate a given meteorological condition, the same rule should hold good in America. As a matter of fact, however, I can find no similarity between the English and Swedish and the American weather-lore, except such as applies to domestic animals; nor do I find any common English sayings in use.

That which I have heard, and have recorded from time to time, appears to have originated where now, or where it lately was, in use. To a great extent, I believe it to be original with the descendants of the immigrants that settled Central New Jersey and the country generally about Philadelphia; but a portion of it, very possibly, was derived from the Indians.

At present, a portion of this weather-lore is repeated as nursery rhymes, and it is due to this that it has been preserved to the present time; and, so far as I have been able to determine, not one of the rhymes or sayings has ever been published. That among the earliest papers and almanacs of the country there may be found some of them, or slightly different versions of the same, is probable, but my searchings therefor, in the larger libraries, have not resulted in any such discoveries.

The main interest, however, in connection with weather-lore, is to determine whether they do or do not correctly represent the relationship of the animals mentioned to the given condition of the weather. In other words, is the zoölogy of the weather-lore misrepresented or not? I am forced to declare that, as a rule, those who by virtue of their ingenuity framed these rhymes and brief sayings did not correctly interpret Nature.

Very many of the early English settlers were, no doubt, excellent observers; but they appear, at times, to have more desired to be looked upon as weather-prophets than as naturalists, and strove to have glib nonsense-sayings pass current as evidence of their wisdom, instead of taking pains to correctly interpret the course of Nature and determine the relation of animal life to its environment.

Often, during my rambles in the neighborhood, I have questioned the few remaining descendants of the original settlers concerning the local weather-proverbs, and I find the impression is still prevalent that the purport of all these sayings is substantially correct, and therefore, to a great degree, that my neighbors are laboring under erroneous impressions. "Is there not wisdom in a multitude of counselors?" they ask; and I, standing alone, am voted the fool, while they pose as sages.

Let us consider this weather-lore, bit by bit, as I have gathered it from time to time, and discuss its merits, if it possesses any, and also its absurdities.

Of such sayings as refer to our domestic animals, the following are the most noteworthy. Of the cow, I have heard it said:

"When a cow tries to scratch its ear,
It means a shower is very near ";

and again—

"When it thumps its ribs with its tail,
Look out for thunder, lightning, hail."

As is now pretty well known, a short time before a shower in summer, there is often a highly electrical condition of the atmosphere, which makes all animals more or less uneasy. Therefore, the lashing of the tail, if not merely to brush away flies, may refer to this uneasiness, and so, too, the ears may be more sensitive than the general surface of the body. This is a probable explanation, but, after all, it is not proved that the cow at such a time suffers as much from it as is supposed; nor is it easy to see how the flagellation of a very insignificant part of the body can ease a painful sensation common to the entire surface. On the other hand, it is certain that flies and other troublesome insects are sensitive to atmospheric changes, even a slight lowering of the temperature, such as no mammal would appreciate; and for an hour or two before a shower, for this reason, they congregate in extraordinary numbers about animals—horses and cows particularly. I have thought that they seek the cows for warmth when the air suddenly cools; and is it not more than probable that the nervousness on the part of the animal, shown by frantic efforts to scratch its ears with its hind-feet and the lashing of its tail, has to do with the excess of irritation caused by innumerable flies, and not with any unusual electrical titillation? If so, the cow's action is still indicative of an approaching change in the weather, and so far may be claimed as a sign of such change, but the connection of the two facts is not such a one as is usually given. It is an indirect, not direct, indication of the prophesied rain-storm. But bearing heavily on the subject is the unquestionable fact that an unusual number of flies often suddenly make their appearance, and torment cattle almost beyond endurance, during the four or six weeks of drought which in summer, early or late, we are so sure to have. In such cases the signs fail. I have asked many a farmer how this could be, and the one reply that I have received in every case is that "there was a shower in the neighborhood." It usually happened, however, that the neighborhood was as parched as we were, and, seeing the signs fail with them, they were covetous of the shower they supposed that we bad had. Perhaps it is with such indications of changes in the weather as it has been said of autumnal proofs of the character of the approaching winter. Miles Overfield once remarked, "When the signs get to failin' 'long in the fall, there'll be no tellin' about the winter."

Of pigs, I have heard it said, very frequently—

"When swine carry sticks,
The clouds will play tricks";

but that—

"When they lie in the mud,
No fears of a flood."

The first of these couplets is of twofold interest. I have watched them for years, to see what purport this carrying of sticks and bunches of grass might have, and have only learned that it has nothing whatever to do with the weather, or at least with coming rain-storms. The drought of summer is so far a convenience as to throw light upon this habit, as it did upon the uneasy cows. Pigs carry sticks as frequently then as during wet weather, or just preceding a shower. Furthermore, these gathered twigs are not brought together as though to make a nest, but are scattered about in a perfectly aimless manner. For some cause, the animal is uneasy, and takes this curious method of relieving itself. The probabilities are that it is a survival of some habit common to swine in their feral condition, just as we see a dog turn about half a dozen times before lying down.

In an interesting paper on local weather-lore, read by Mr. Amos W. Butler before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, during the Philadelphia meeting of 1884, the author has another version of this saying: "When hogs gather up sticks and carry them about, expect cold weather." This is wholly at variance with what I have observed, for my memoranda record this habit almost wholly during the hot weather, and this must necessarily be the rule with New Jersey swine, or the local weather-prophets would not have coined the verse as I have given it.

As to the other couplet, it is about as near meaningless as any saying can well be. Some rustic rhymer, a century ago, may have added it as a piece of fun, but it has stuck most persistently. As it stands now, it has stood for quite one hundred years.

In reference to the dog, I have heard the following more pretentious stanza, which has now taken its place among our nursery rhymes, where, indeed, it is best fitted to remain:

"When drowsy dogs start from their sleep,
And bark at empty space,
'Tis not a dream that prompts them to,
But showers come on apace."

Here we have essentially the same inference as in that of the rhyme about cows, but it is not to be explained away so readily. Such acts, as described, can not be attributed to annoyance by flies, for they too often emerge from dark quarters, where they have been unmolested; but the all-important fact must not be overlooked that such acts are not confined to summer. If they were, the electrical theory might be advanced with some confidence. From what I have noticed in such dogs as I have owned, the habit of dreaming, which in the rhyme is denied to be the explanation, is probably the key to the mystery. Again, statistics show that the correspondence between such habits and sudden showers is only what we should expect in the way of coincidences. Dogs certainly are not to be considered as reliable barometers.

The same may be said of the domestic cat. Its movements have all been carefully noted, and the yawning, stretching, scratching, and waving of the tail appear to have been accredited with some special meteorological significance. Careful observation has not confirmed any of these impressions. Table-legs are scratched time and again by Tom or Tabby, and no rain falls for twenty-four or forty-eight hours. They stretch themselves after a nap, lick their sides and wash their faces with the same regularity in midwinter as in midsummer, yet it is only showers, and not snow-storms, which these actions are supposed to predict.

When in summer the signs fail, my country friends conveniently forget the remark they have made; but, if the day does prove showery, my non-combative neighbors take much delight in repeating over and over again, "I told thee so," with a suggestive emphasis, showing how much, like other people, they love to gain a victory, if open warfare can be avoided.

The only weather-rhyme referring to a cat that I have heard, and which is essentially the same as that about dogs, runs thus:

"When Tabby claws the table-legs,
She for a summer shower begs."

That is, begs it will hurry; with no doubt in her mind of its possibly disappointing her.

The weather-lore of the commoner wild animals is of much more general interest. Weather-sayings referring to animals do not appear to have been so numerous as are those referring to birds. I have been able to learn of but three examples. In reference to minks and weasels, I have heard it said—and possibly others may be familiar with this mystic rhyme—

"When storm-winds blow and night is black,
The farmer may a pullet lack;
But, if the moon is shining clear,
No mink or weasel dares come near."

This involves an interesting phase of the life-history of these animals; for while they probably can see a little when it is quite dark, and are safely guided by the sense of smell, nevertheless, the experience of trappers about home proves that they do wander about during moonlight nights. Indeed, on careful inquiry, it seems that the trapper generally anticipates better success during the moonlit nights than when it is very dark. I strongly suspect that the truth lies in the fact that, when it is dark and stormy, the watchful house-dog is not on the alert, and thus the cunning weasel or mink is free to raid upon the poultry-house and feast upon the pullet that it seizes. How my neighbors will take to this explanation I can only surmise. Like other people, they fight vigorously for the opinions they have cherished through life. The musk-rat and gray squirrels have given rise to many trite sayings, and have long been looked upon as weather-prophets, but that they are nothing of the sort I have elsewhere[1] endeavored to show.

The following may or may not be a local saying:

"When flying-squirrels run on ground,
The clouds'll pass you by, be bound."

What this may mean has been a question with me for a long time. It is a common remark, either in this or a simpler form, and many, who have little faith in pigs or dogs as weather-prophets, build largely upon the habits of the flying-squirrel. The saying itself implies that a drought exists at the time that these animals frequent the ground rather than the trees, coming, of course, thereto, in order to find food. If the saying be true, the summer food of the flying-squirrel must be more plentiful on the ground than in the tops of the tallest trees. What that food is exactly, I am not aware; nor have I had any opportunity to verify the statement that flying-squirrels frequent the ground during "dry spells." Those that I have seen, near home, are so strictly crepuscular that only the initial movements of their nocturnal journeys are readily traced; but, whenever I have seen them sally from their retreats, it was to take a tree-top route for several rods and then to be lost to sight. Take the year through, it is probable that they seldom come to the ground to forage. When they do so, is it an evidence of continued dry weather? I can neither contradict nor affirm; but are not the probabilities against such being the case?

Speaking of the opossum, it is said that, if found in autumn in hollow trees, the winter will be milder than if occupying a burrow in the ground.

This seems to be very reasonable, and would pass admirably as a weather-sign, but for one unfortunate circumstance. While you may find one or more in a tree, your neighbor may find as many in the ground. I have known this to be the case more than once. Under these circumstances, meet your neighbor at the line-fence and compare notes. What about the winter?

From their greater abundance and never-failing presence, it might be thought that the weather-lore of birds would be much more elaborate than that referring to other classes of animals; but my observations do not confirm this. There are simply a greater number of sayings current, and fully one half are too trivial to repeat. It would seem as if a weather-lore possibly of Indian origin and referring to birds then abundant, but now wholly wanting, was current more than a century ago. These sayings were subsequently applied to other species, nearly or more remotely allied, and whatever meaning they may originally have had has been lost; but the apparent absurdity of such "proverbs," as now used, seems never to have occurred to those who repeat them.

That the dusting of chickens, cackling of geese, and the "pot-racking" of Guinea-hens have not given rise to an elaborate series of weather-proverbs is, I think, surprising. The only familiar reference to the chicken heard about home is that the rooster, crowing at night, says, "Christmas—coming—on!" It does appear that the midnight crowing of cocks is more frequently heard in December than in June; but, so far as the meaning is concerned, it unfortunately happens that the nocturnal crowing is as often heard in January as in December. Calling attention to this, I was once gravely assured that the cocks crew differently then, and said, "Christmas—come—and—gone!" I accepted the explanation. This is not a weather matter, but is not irrelevant, as it shows how very common it once was to couple any unusual occurrence with something sooner or later to happen, and therefore, in the matter of weather especially, to claim it as prophetic of that event.

Of the examples of weather-lore of birds, the following are not uncommonly heard in Central New Jersey. Of the cardinal-grossbeak, or winter redbird, it is said:

"The redbird lies, without regret:
However dry, it whistles 'wet!'"

That is, the bird is credited with knowing it will not rain, and teases the farmer by singing "wet" in his ears all day. Others put another meaning on the redbird's note, and claim it to be a sure sign of rain. This is more like the ordinary sayings commonly heard, and let us give it a moment's consideration. At present, the time of year when the cardinal-birds sing least is during the hot summer months. Not that they are absolutely mute for even a few days at a time, but relatively so as compared with their joyous strains through autumn and winter; and again, early in summer, when they are nesting, these birds, like robins, are more apt to sing directly after a shower than at any other time.

So much for the gay cardinal as a weather-prophet. The rare summer redbird—a tanager—which also utters a whistling note, well described by the syllable "wet," shortly and sharply expressed, is likewise said to prophesy rain. The probabilities are that the note of the redbird, cardinal and summer, suggesting the word "wet," has given rise to the belief that their utterance was a sign of a coming shower or storm. It is often by such illogical methods that these sayings have become established. After a few repetitions they become fixed in the mind and their origin forgotten; they are invested with an importance not their due, and not attributed to them by their originators. Ultimately they are incorporated in the weather-lore of the country.

Of the innumerable swallows, it is said, with as little show of reason:

"No rain e'er poured upon the earth,
That damped the twittering swallow's mirth."

No? Well, of late, the whole host takes refuge from storms—the barn-swallows in the hay-mow, the cliff-swallows under the eaves, the sand-martins in their burrows, and the chimney-swifts in their sooty homes in the chimneys. Why this change of habit? For a wonderful change must have taken place, if the couplet quoted was ever true. I do admit that swallows and swifts appear to be noisier before and during a shower; but does not this arise from the fact that at such a time they collect in great numbers near their nests, to take refuge, if the storm should increase in violence? And again, the silence of other birds makes the twittering swallow a more prominent bird than under other circumstances; but nothing of this warrants the extravagant assertion that no storm ever put a quietus upon them.

The larger hawks, too, are supposed to give warning of a coming shower when they utter their peculiar cat-like scream. Among our old people the following may sometimes be heard repeated:

"The hen-hawk's scream, at hot, high noon,
Foretells a coming shower soon."

This couplet is of some interest, as, at present, it is not applicable to our larger hawks and buzzards. Indeed, the only one of them that is prone to cry out while circling overhead is the red-tailed buzzard or hen-hawk, and this bird is very seldom seen in midsummer, and now certainly is only heard in autumn, winter, or early spring. The saying implies that formerly these birds were abundant at all times of the year, and during the summer would cry out in their peculiar fashion. The settlement of the country and general deforesting of such a large portion of it have driven these hawks to more retired parts during the nesting-season, and there, throughout summer, their cry may indicate that it will soon rain; but, if so, why does not the same cry in autumn have some reference to the weather?

It is scarcely necessary to continue the list. Other birds than those mentioned—reptiles, batrachians, and fishes—have all given rise to certain current sayings, but of no more value than those I have given, and all, I think, based upon illogical inferences. Snakes are claimed as excellent barometers; but the habits upon which the belief rests are those that characterize every day of the creature's life. Toads and frogs are largely depended upon, but a careful record for a single season will show how little they are to be trusted; and even the fishes can not disport themselves in summer, but straightway the clouds must open upon us, a tornado visit us, or premature frosts balk the calculations of the farmer.

Curiously enough, I do not find that insect-life has entered to any important extent into the weather-lore of this neighborhood. Contradictory remarks are often made as to ant-hills: thus, when they are very high, it will be a dry day; others insist that it is evidence that it will soon rain. Spiders' webs, also, are variously held as of barometric value; but a careful record of several summers contradicts this emphatically. The positions of the paper-hornets' nests, which in autumn are often prominent objects in the country, after the foliage drops, are variously asserted to be indicative of a "hard" or "open" winter, as they chance to be placed in the upper or lower branches of a tree. My skepticism as to the value of this sign arises from the fact that there is, as might be expected, no uniformity in the positions of any half-dozen such nests.

It may be rash to say that meteorological science can gain nothing from scientific observation of animal life; but the character of the weather-lore that has been handed down from father to son for the past two centuries plainly indicates that the observations which gave rise to them were anything but scientific in character. Mankind now, as formerly, may be close observers of Nature, but this does not imply that they are accurate observers. They assume as correct the appearance, but it is no unusual circumstance for an animal to be doing the very opposite of what might naturally be supposed was the case. The simple and sad fact derived from a study of local animal weather-lore is that, in the days of our grandfathers, painstaking naturalists were few and far between.


  1. "Rambles about Home," p. 73, D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1884.