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Eight winter weather myths

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Sunday, December 1, 2013, 4:47 PM -

The Weather Network released its 2013/2014 Winter Outlook last week. But now that science has had its say, what does your gut tell you?

When we polled visitors to theweathernetwork.com to tell us their favourite winter weather wives tales, we had quite the response

It seems everyone knows at least one, so for your amusement, here are eight of the most popular.

Pine cones on the trees

IN THE VIDEO: Chris Murphy (@chris_m_twn) 

Supposedly, you can tell how harsh the winter is going to be by the height of pine cones in the trees. The higher they are, the worse the season will be.

There are actually a bunch of myths surrounding the pine cones – for example, if they’re larger, it’s because the tree “expects” a harsh winter and wants future saplings to have a chance to survive.

Onlookers say it’s even linked to squirrels and birds. When a harsh winter is on the way, pine trees produce as many cones as they can  - they somehow “expect” that squirrels and birds share their opinion on the coming season, and will forage for more pine seeds to stock up ahead of time (you hear this one about other trees too – acorns, walnuts etc).

Image: Kekka/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Kekka/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists don’t put much stock in this one (and even the legendary Farmer’s Almanac doesn’t mention it in this handy list) – it’s more likely the trees are reacting to past conditions than predicting future ones (and this researcher says even if the trees “seem” to be right sometimes, the wrong guesses would outnumber the right ones).

Squirrels gathering nuts

IN THE VIDEO: Chris Murphy (@chris_m_twn) 

This one is kind of a spin-off of the pine cone weatherlore – with abundant acorns and nuts just about everywhere, squirrels will gather them up as much as they can in expectation of a bad season.

Not only that, this source says you’ll also spot them scurrying around in the fall with tails that are thicker and bushier than normal – presumably because some species wrap themselves in their tails for warmth.

We have no idea if this is a reliable sign of a bad winter to come, and we’ve not been able to find any research one way or another.

Image: Hernán De Angelis/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Hernán De Angelis/Wikimedia Commons

The key may be how certain trees may produce more nuts or fruits or cones due to factors in the fall and summer. And if you’re a squirrel and your primary food source is being unusually generous this season, wouldn't you hedge your bets and stock up as much as you can? 

Colours of woolly worms

IN THE VIDEO: Sheryl Plouffe (@SherylPlouffe) 

In a more creepy-crawly fashion, the ever-present woolly worm is supposed to be another indicator of the coming cooldown.

The idea is, the longer the critter’s black bands are, the tougher will the be winter. Likewise, if the browner bands dominate, the winter will be milder.

People have seriously looked at this. A researcher at the Smithsonian Institute found this tidbit of weather folklore to be accurate 80 per cent of the time.

However, the same source claims no other scientist has been able replicate the results, and this gardening website says it’s bogus. 

Apparently, the colour and width of the woolly worms’ bands is based on age, how long they’ve been able to feed, and what species they are.

Higher hornets’ nests means a rougher winter.

IN THE VIDEO: Sheryl Plouffe (@SherylPlouffe) 

This one applies to bees and wasps as well, but is most commonly attributed to hornets. The idea is, the higher the hornets build their nest, the worse the snowfall is expected to be.

We’ve not been able to find any research that suggests the winged insects can tell one way or another, but whether they build high or low, it’s a moot point.

As the warm months go on, a colony will produce breeding males and females that will go out and mate.

The fertilized females don’t return to the nest though. They will either hibernate in the ground or in logs. Their fellow hornets left behind, however, won’t do that.

Image: Andy Adams

Image: Andy Adams

They’ll stay in the nest, where they will die off. When the fertilized females, future queens, emerge from hibernation, they will found their own nests, rarely reoccupying their old digs.

So if you see a nest high in the trees in early winter, don’t take it as much of a sign. Harsh season or no, it will either be abandoned, or filled with frozen hornets.

Dogberries are plentiful

IN THE VIDEO: Emily Vukovic (@EmilyTWN)

Dogberries are common enough in Canada, and hold special significance in Newfoundland – when newcomers from Ireland and Scotland arrived, they resembled plants in those countries believed by the Celts to have a mystical role.

You can make a kind of jelly or jam out of them, and apparently you can ferment them to come up with some kind of wine (no idea if it’s any good).

Winter-wise, if dogberries are thick and plentiful, that’s supposedly a sign of a hard winter ahead. Like other entries on this list, it’s supposedly reactive – the harder the coming winter, the hungier the birds will be. Growing more berries will make it less likely the birds will pick the bushes clean, leaving enough for propagation next season.

Image: Jackie Heath

Image: Jackie Heath

Bad news for weather lore, though: The number of berries is more likely due to conditions in the summer and fall. This Newfoundland nature blog is one of many to repeat the myth, but its creator says he’s not been able to correlate it in 20-some years.

Geese migrate earlier

IN THE VIDEO: Emily Vukovic (@EmilyTWN) 

Had an eye on the sky lately? A well-worn winter myth is tied up with the migration of geese.

Legend has it, if the geese, and other birds such as ducks, are migrating earlier than usual, it’s because they somehow sense that the upcoming winter will be a harsh one.

Like most weather myths, it’s hard to say aye or nay, as there’s little research.

Even so, it’s not even the weirdest of the weather myths.

Image: Kelly Balkom

Image: Kelly Balkom

Apparently, it was once widely believed that hummingbirds and other avian creatures actually hitch rides on the backs of southbound geese. And that’s not even the weirdest – other myths include geese migrating to the moon, hibernating in the mud, or changing into other types of birds en route.

Against those, the “early migration equals rough winter” version is actually the least interesting.

Fat in deer hide

IN THE VIDEO: Chris St. Clair (@cstclair1) 

Theoretically, hunters can guess how bad the winter will be by measuring the fat in the hide of deer taken in the fall.

This blog at the Farmer’s Almanac suggests there might be some significance.

And certainly, deer are known to adapt in visible ways to the coming winter. This hunting website notes deer’s coats change from reddish brown to graying brown as the winter wears on, to improve camouflage in the wintertime.

Image: Leila Liinamaa

Image: Leila Liinamaa

But whether or not deer behaviour and physiology, including fat levels, is a reliable winter indicator remains unproven – as with other weather behaviour in this article, it’s likely linked to how plentiful the previous season was, rather than an indicator of what the winter season might hold.

Brighter Fall colours

IN THE VIDEO: Chris St. Clair (@cstclair1) 

Multi-coloured forests are the universal symbol of the northern fall and, some reckon, a sign of the season that follows.

The brighter the hues, the snowier and colder the winter, as the wisdom goes.

We hate to tell you this, but as with almost everything else on this list, while it may seem to be a good predictor of the coming winter in some years, that’s usually just coincidence. 

The key to the bright colours lies in past, not future, seasons, such as how dry the summer and early fall have been.

Image: Jamie Pyette

Image: Jamie Pyette

As well, all plants’ chlorophyll levels decrease as nights get longer, and present-day cooler weather in general brings brighter colours.

So those red and orange tones are more to do with the weather that’s happened and is happening, rather than the weather that is to come.

WHAT SIGNS DID YOU SEE THIS FALL? Let us know in the comments section below!

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