Birds Predicting the Weather

Continuing a previous discussion of pseudoscientific and simply nonsensical beliefs about birds, let’s talk about the weather. Some of these actually make a bit of sense.

“When the fish hawks (Osprey) come north, winter’s over.” “On the eastern shore of Maryland, they always arrive on St. Patrick’s Day.” That is of course exaggerated as the arrival of the first observed bird always varies. “When the Red-headed Woodpecker comes, there won’t be no more frost” and “When the Whip-Poor-Will arrives, it’s time to go bare-footed.” Those observations are pretty close to reality.

In one of his few references to bird folklore, Audubon said “There is an absurd notion that the loon’s plaintive cries are a sure indication of violent storms. Sailors in particular are ever apt to consider these call notes as portentious.”  Some said the loon is a weather prophet as he always fishes with the wind; if the wind is going to change he will fly windward before it does. Others believed that if the loon called they would call up a nor’easter and spoil the fishing, so they endeavored to kill all the loons before they could cry up a storm.

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo was a foreteller of bad weather and was called the “rain crow.” The lumberjacks of Wisconsin called the Pileated Woodpeckers “logcocks” and claimed it was a sign of rain when they called. Some considered the Redpoll a sign of rain and the Snow Bunting a sign of snow.

In the lowlands of Louisiana, the height of egret nests foretold the amount of rain. The higher the nests were built in the trees, the more rain would fall. And if your barn was frequented by Barn Swallows, the building was safe from lightning strikes.

All of these stories have some basis in fact, except maybe the Barn Swallow one. Birds can detect rising and falling barometric pressure and often react to it in ways we can observe. It is said that birds perch more before a storm. They do. The reason is, low pressure (storm) fronts make it harder for birds to fly, so they perch to rest more often. Studies with caged birds in pressurized chambers indicate that birds can sense falling pressure and will eat more than they do in a rising pressure situation (to fill up on food before the bad weather hits.)

Years ago I read an article in a local bird magazine whose grip on credible information was tenuous. Someone wrote in and explained that as bad weather approached a bunch of swallows perched on the utility lines behind his house. As there were five utility lines, the birds looked like notes on a musical staff. So the writer went to get his mandolin and proceeded to play what he saw. Turns out the musical piece was God Bless America!

Well, I don’t know about that, but years later, just last year in fact, I ran across an article where a musician did something similar. Except he took a photo of the birds on the wires, composed it for xylophone, clarinet, oboe and bassoon and posted it on YouTube. Here it is.

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