Wives Tales: Predicting Winter With the Wooly Worm

Ah, weather. People have spent careers and dedicated lives to understanding it just to have the fickle beast flip the script overnight. Technology has helped, but every year the season is a little colder, the storm a little stronger, the rain a little rainier than anyone predicted. Long before Mega Doppler Intellicast 5000s and Jim Cantore’s bald head, these predictions didn’t come from weather maps, they were born from the natural world. And, by many accounts, a little imagination. The small pieces of folklore known today as Old Wives Tales were some of the first weather prediction methods, ranging from the outrageous to the somewhat plausible. Today many of those tales have fallen by the wayside, replaced by computerized charts and storms with names, but as winter rolls around, we thought it would be nice to reintroduce some of them. Here are six of our favorite signs of a snowy winter.—Kade Krichko


wives truck
No one saw this coming! Well, except that fat skunk. Whitewater, B.C. Photo: Derek Taylor


The Stripes on a Wooly Worm

The old wooly worm prediction is the most popular one in the book. The two-toned fuzzy caterpillar is said to predict the severity of winter weather with the thickness of its stripes. If the brown band in the middle is narrow, the winter will be harsh; and if it’s thicker, the opposite holds true. While there is no scientific backing to support the claim, a 1950’s survey by American Museum of Natural History Insect Curator Dr. C.H. Curran said that the prediction method was 80-percent accurate. We’re not sure what that means exactly, but 80-percent is better than most  local weathermen these days, so maybe we’re onto something?


Wives Snowblower
Bring it on, Wooly Worm! Ogden, Utah. Photo: Derek Taylor


Sinking Chimney Smoke

For storm forecasting, old lore dictates that if chimney smoke flows toward or settles on the ground in the fall, then it will be a hard winter. In addition, the settling smoke suggests that it will snow within 26 days. The story actually holds some scientific clout, though the timeline may be tweaked a bit. According to meteorologist and USA TODAY contributor Bob Swanson, low-pressure systems (aka systems associated with stormy weather) carry water vapor that condenses on the small particles of chimney smoke, weighing them down and keeping them closer to the ground. Therefore, if smoke is staying low, weather is moving in, though usually a little quicker than the suggested 26-day turnaround.


Wives tales Nuts
Another mast year. Get to work, Squirrels! Photo: Derek Taylor

An Abundance of Nuts on the Ground

Referred to as a “mast year,” a year that sees more acorns and nuts on the ground come fall is believed to signal a harsh winter ahead. Some hypothesize that this is a way for trees to increase the chances of spreading their seed in lieu of potentially damaging severe weather. Squirrels are also said to be more active ahead of a stormy winter, gathering as much food as they can to prepare for a long cold season, so if you see a bunch of furry varmints getting all ornery about their nuts, get ready for a winter full of the good stuff.


Horses Growing Thicker Hair

Old Amish lore says a big winter is ahead if their Standardbred horses grow a thicker coat of fur than normal. Many folk tales suggest the same for a number of other animals, including the tails of squirrels and raccoons and the nape of a cow’s neck. This hypothesis isn’t that outlandish, as animals have long had a sixth sense of sorts when it comes to the seasons and surviving. If your horse is looking shaggy, clean up the barn and get the powder boards ready.

Wives Pigs Carrying sticks
A good snow year means we’ll all be happier than a pig with sticks…. or something.




Pigs Gather Sticks

The old couplet goes, “When swine carry sticks/The clouds will play tricks.” Sometime in centuries past, a poetic farmer decided that his pig’s propensity for twig gathering directly correlated to a stormy winter. Many after have refuted the claim, including Dr. C.C. Abbott in an 1886 Popular Science Monthly article, where he said, “This is wholly at variance with what I have observed…and this must necessarily be the rule with New-Jersey swine.” (Note: There’s no confirmation on whether he was still referring to farm animals or not.)


The Height of a Hornet Nest

New England folklore says that a region’s snowfall can be predicted based on the height of hornet nests in the area that year. If nests are looking higher than normal, that means locals are in for a stormier winter. In actuality hornets abandon their nests before wintertime, so they’re probably not concerned with snow levels in a given year, but who are we to tell you any differently? Go out and start measuring those nests! Just make sure nobody’s home.


Also keep you eye out for:

Heavy fogs in August, fruit trees blooming twice, and fatter than usual skunks (please use observational tactics rather than the hands-on approach here).

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