Signs of a Bad Winter: Squirrels, Onion Skins, and Other Folklore

September 24, 2020
Onion Skins

I sometimes wonder why I am in the climate business. According to folklore, just look at the squirrels! Or the thickness of onion skins! Interestingly, weather folklore warning of a harsh winter is based on La Niña. So, it’s a little bit of art and science! Let’s look at some signs of a bad winter, accordingly to weather lore. 

The competition for my job predicting weather is horrendous. Here is a sample of rodent wisdom:

Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry,
Will cause snow to gather in a hurry.

In addition, a tough winter is ahead if squirrels’ tails are very bushy. (Are you polishing the snow shovel yet?)


Image: Weather folklore claims squirrels know about winter! Source: National Park Service

Birds and bees are giving you hints as well. When birds migrate early or bees build their nests high in the trees, the winter is going to be awful. The old saying goes:

See how high the hornet’s nest,
‘twill tell how high the snow will rest.

See how birds and insects predict the weather, too.

A narrow band of brown on a woolly caterpillar means the same thing.


Image: “Are your chrysanthemums really pretty? Get out the mittens.” Even the flowers know! Source: Wikimedia

Trees, flowers, vegetables, and plants are in the weather business as well. When leaves drop early, autumn and winter will be mild; but if they fall late, winter will be severe. Folklore claims that thicker onion skins can signal a cold and snowy winter.

Onion’s skin very thin,
Mild winter coming in ;
Onion’s skin thick and rough,
Coming winter cold and rough.
–Gardener’s Rhyme

Other signs of a bad winter are:

  • Flowers blooming in late autumn
  • Cornhusks thicker than normal and tight
  • Apple skins are tough
  • Berries and nuts are plentiful (That might be why the squirrels are so busy!)

Some of these are based on old-fashioned observation. But some goes back to science. Weather folklore warning of a harsh winter are based on La Niñas.

La Niñas tend to be dry in summer and cold in winter, so if birds leave early, the leaves fall quickly, onions and apples are tough, and caterpillars are short, it may be due to the La Niña drought. A miserable La Niña winter will follow.


Image credit: Some folklore is warning of a cold La Niña winter. NOAA.

Other folklore is just based on the idea that you shouldn’t let your guard down. Lots of berries, nuts and flowers may be the sign of a lovely warm November. However, weatherwise, winter will probably be awful.

As for the squirrels—ignore them. They’re just squirrely!

Read more about how animals predict the weather.

About This Blog

The column, “Weather Whispers,” is authored by James Garriss and Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologists and weather addicts!  Whether you enjoy the science of weather or the fascinating folklore or just fun weather phenomena, it’s probably covered by these weather watchers!

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