This Thursday is Groundhog Day which is one of the worst examples of phenology.
Phenology is nature’s calendar. It is the recording and analysis of what happens in nature – first leaves and blooms, the appearance of certain insects, birds, or animals. If you read earlier posts about silly Groundhog Day, you find that at one time the careful observation of animals emerging from hibernation naturally (not for TV cameras) was a way of tracking the natural calendar and even making some predictions about things like planting.
Many birds time their nesting so that eggs hatch when insects are available to feed nestlings, and insect emergence is often synchronized with leaf out in host plants. Things are connected.
I’ve been tracking my little corner of the world. You can do it too. Climate change gets lots of attention and rightly so, but phenology may be altered by changes in things like precipitation. And on a very local level – like my garden in Paradelle – it can be affected by a tree being taken down, a neighbor putting up a fence or the growth of trees. Changes in phenological events like flowering and animal migration are among the most sensitive biological responses to climate change. Across the world, many spring events are occurring earlier—and fall events are happening later—than they did in the past.
The USA National Phenology Network was established in 2007 to collect, store, and share phenology data and information. I looked this weekend at the “status of spring” across the country on their website. Based on observations, as of January 23, 2023: “Spring leaf out conditions have arrived in southern states. Spring is up to three weeks earlier than average (the period of 1991-2020) in parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Austin, TX is 9 days early, Jackson, MS is 12 days early, and Charleston, SC is 10 days early.”
So far in my Paradelle, no signs of spring, even though January has been mild and snowless. But February is typically the most wintery month here.
I was raking leaves today and was being bombarded by falling acorns. The ground is covered with them and the squirrels and chipmunks are going a bit crazy.
I have read that acorn production runs in cycles of two to five years. In the lore of weather predictions and nature signs about the seasons, a lot of acorns are said to be a sign of a bad winter to come.
“Squirrels gathering nuts in a flurry will cause snow to gather in a hurry.”
Acorns and other fruits, nuts, berries, and buds produced by trees and bushes are called “mast.” Hard mast is the name for acorns, walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, and hard seeds. (Buds are soft mast.) A mast year is a year when the amount of that mast is unusually high in number, In Paradelle, 2022 autumn is a mast year.
Acorns have been bombing my home’s roof and deck and pinging the roof of the metal shed in the backyard heavily since late summer. The quantity of acorns seems to vary from year to year. This year might be what is known as a “mast year.”
I had to look up what a mast year means. The fruits, nuts, berries, and buds produced by trees and bushes are called “mast.” Things like walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts, hard seeds, and acorns are called hard masts, and berries and fruits, and buds are soft mast. A mast year is a year when the amount of that mast is unusually high in number,
Since my first association with the word “mast” is with a sailing ship, I had to check the etymology of this botanical usage. It comes from Middle English and earlier Old English mete similar to mæst in Old High German where it meant food. If you think of an acorn as food (many animals and some humans do) then inside that shell is the meat.
Can we predict these cycles of acorn plenty? Do we know why they occur? There are theories but it is still mostly a mystery.
These mast years seem to occur in irregular cycles of two to five years. An abundance of acorns is often said to be a nature sign of a bad winter. The folk belief is that squirrels, chipmunks, mice and other animals somehow know that they need to stock up for a bad winter and that nature somehow knows to increase the supply chain of acorns. But there’s no real science behind that folk wisdom and weather lore. that they need to stock up. The Farmers’ Almanac – which has lots of folklore around weather – seems to indicate that if acorn numbers mean a bad winter then almost every year is a bad winter.
But I continue and observe and write about signs of the seasons in nature and keep a nature calendar.
Squirrels, mice, chipmunks and deer feed on the acorns in my neighborhood. When the trees produce smaller crops for a few consecutive years, they are in effect keeping the populations of these animals in check. But during a mast year, the trees produce more food than the animals can possibly eat.
This abundance causes a boom in the populations of smaller mammals. It also guarantees that some acorns will survive and grow into new trees. Producing nuts slightly stunts the tree’s growth, but as it happens in cycles the tree gets a chance for growth in the non-mast years. Living things generally live to reproduce.
Chipmunks hibernate in cold weather and so in Paradelle, they spend most of the winter sleeping in their dens. I read that one chipmunk can gather up to 165 acorns in a day. But those cute little Disneyesque critters don’t just eat acorns. Along with seeds and fungi, they will eat grain, fruit, nuts, insects, and worms. I was surprised to find that though they don’t hunt for bird eggs and even nestling birds and baby mice, they will eat them when they find them. They also love to dig in my outdoor potted plants, so cute as Chip and dale might be, they are also pests around here.
In 2020, the chipmunk population locally was insanely large. This year I barely saw any – until the acorns started to fall in late August and now they are all over my backyard and deck. Where were they all spring and summer?
In reading the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers and some other research as a follow-up. I learned a lot about trees. For example, most people probably believe that trees compete with each other for sunlight, water, and nutrients. That isn’t true. In fact, in most settings, they communicate and cooperate.
With acorns, temperature and moisture are probably factors in these cycles, and now it is theorized that oaks might be sending chemical signals to coordinate their production. In my part of the country (Northeast) last winter and spring were generally mild winter and so white and red oak trees are able to produce more of them when they start creating seeds in the spring. A harsh winter or cold spring or freeze can mean little acorn production, or sometimes none at all.
There are still mysteries in all this. How trees communicate with each other is still being explored. We can’t predict when any one species will have a mast year.
but we do better understand what causes it. The weather certainly has a part to play. To produce a healthy crop, the trees need the right combination of temperature and rainfall in the spring.
Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events in relation to the weather. This is the scientific version of weather lore and the studies continue.
SIDEBAR: Can humans safely eat acorns? Yes, they can be used in a variety of ways. They can be eaten whole, ground up into acorn meal or flour, or made into mush to have their oil extracted. Once you’ve safely leached the tannins from your raw acorns, you can roast them for 15 to 20 minutes and sprinkle them with salt for a snack. I haven’t tried eating yet, but maybe this is a good year for it.
After doing lots of reading and observation of nature in my life, I have determined that some of the signs we think we see in nature are deceptive, false, or what I categorize on this site as “lore.”
Prime example: Thinking that some groundhog held in captivity and pulled out on a day in February means anything about the weather to come. Even the voluntary arrival of robins in your backyard doesn’t mean a lot. I’ve seen them sitting on my fence in a March snowstorm. They are more likely to be using nature signs in the place they were wintering. Though the American robin has always been a harbinger of spring here when it arrives in March and starts nesting activities, I’ve read that many are here year-round. They have gotten the message about climate change.
Japanese cherry blossoms, known as “Sakura,” reached a peak bloom in Kyoto, Japan this year on March 26. That is the earliest date in 1,209 years, based on data collected by Osaka University. This is the first time they’ve been this early since 812 AD.
Still, I keep reading and observing, particularly in my own Paradelle area and in my own backyard microclimate.
New Jersey has more cherry trees than Washington D.C. Branch Brook Park in Belleville and Newark has more than 2,700 Japanese cherry blossom trees. The Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival this year is from April 3 – 18. They are in bloom this weekend and set to peak in the next week or so. But that doesn’t mean we still won’t have a frost night in the next two weeks.
A few years ago, I read The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs. The book’s cover subtitle tells you the breadth of the subject of reading nature signs: “Use Outdoor Clues to Find Your Way, Predict the Weather, Locate Water, Track Animals―and Other Forgotten Skills.”
I have tried to use all those skills. Okay, I haven’t had the need to find water. I can use tree roots to know the sun’s direction which tells me which way is east/west and therefore north/south. Of course, you also need to know where you are and where you want to go for that to be useful. I used to teach classes in using a map and compass and one exercise was to take people into the woods and then say “Take out your compass. Okay, which way do we go to get back?” Most students couldn’t answer. At night, some people can navigate by the stars.
You can tell something about the current and near-future weather by observing insects since many of them can sense atmospheric pressure differences. Honey bees stay in the hive when they sense a storm. coming. Insects use tiny hair-like receptors on their cuticle to sense pressure changes.
I have read that flies bite before it rains because the barometric pressure drop makes them get food before the storm. An old weather lore rhyme is “When hungry bites the thirsty flea, rain and clouds you sure shall see.” Ladybugs seem to swarm in warm, nice weather. Red and black ants sometimes build up their mounds for extra protection or to cover the mounds’ holes when bad weather is coming. I have written earlier about crickets telling us the temperature.
Similar to insects, birds fly high in clear weather and come closer to the ground with a storm coming, possibly because the pressure is causing them pain at higher altitudes. Old adages include: “Hawks flying high means a clear sky. When they fly low, prepare for a blow.” and “Geese fly higher in fair weather than in foul.” I have also heard that when seagulls fly inland, you should expect a storm, but I have seen them inland on nice, sunny days, so…
But weather is really difficult to predict too far in advance. All of us have watched or read a weather report at night for what tomorrow will be, and then found the actual day to be quite different. Maybe that is why some people seem to trust old weather lore that looks at nature for predictions.
People have been observing changes with insects, animals, birds, plants, the Moon and the stars and trying to connect that to the weather world around them. The problem with most predictions about weather, politics, the end of the world or anything is that we rarely go back months or years later to check on the predictions.
You can look back at the older posts and follow the instructions and do your own predicting. Just be sure to write it down and then check back when spring arrives. Did the predictions come true?
Did the black bands on a woolly bear caterpillar prove to be accurate?
What about those squirrels – gathering food early, bushy tails?
I did not notice any ant hills that were particularly high in July. So, winter should not be snowy. And yet, the first week in August was unusually warm, and that should mean that the coming winter will be snowy and long. Should we believe the ants?
The leaves have barely started to fall here. When leaves fall early, fall and Winter will be mild, but if they fall late,winter will be severe. Start falling leaves!
You can at least pay attention to what is happening in October:
– Much rain in October, much wind in December.
– A warm October means a cold February.
– Full Moon in October without frost, then no frost until November’s Full Moon.
And check the skins of corn (husks), apples and onions. The thicker they are, the tougher the winter. Do you notice a pattern here? When things in nature toughen up, they are getting ready for a tough winter.
Next month is when many meteorologists make their predictions about the coming winter. The 2017 Farmers’ Almanac was published last month and very cold weather for the northern U.S. Even a few periods of unusually cold weather dipping into the deep south (Florida and the Gulf Coast) was predicted while the Western States will have a milder-than-normal winter.
But if you turn to nature for signs, it’s time to do your observations and make predictions within your local area.
Not all weather lore indicators are useful, depending on where you live. I can’t really take note of the early arrival of the Snowy owl or the early departure of geese and ducks. (Geese and ducks in my area never leave!) I also can’t personally observe any early migration of the Monarch butterfly. All three of those events supposedly indicate a severe winter.
I look to all the indicators – science and popular culture. This is what meteorologists predicted last fall. My teaser post a few weeks ago about predicting the winter to come was popular and earlier posts about signs in nature that might predict the winter are perennially popular ones found in searches. (see links below)
As always, observations in your own part of the country should be more accurate than blanket U.S. predictions. Think about the weather you had last month because August is said to indicate the winter to come. Every fog in August supposedly indicates a snowfall. (I observed no fog. Does that mean no snow? I doubt it.) If the first week in August is unusually warm, the coming winter will be snowy and long. And what about this weather rhyme: If a cold August follows a hot July, it foretells a winter hard and dry.
Take note of how animals in your region look. Squirrels with bushy tails and raccoons with thick tails and bright bands mean a rough winter. The same prediction of a rough winter is indicated by mice being very aggressive about getting into your house early. There are also claims that spiders spinning larger than usual webs and entering the house in greater numbers is a sign of severe winter weather.
In general, animals making preparations for winter early or in an out-of-the-ordinary way is a bad sign. That could be the early arrival of crickets (on the hearth?) or bees taking to the hive earlier. This is part of the same weather lore philosophy that originated the tradition of predicting spring’s arrival by groundhogs and other animal behavior.
The one I grew up hearing was woolly bear caterpillars (the larvae of Isabella tiger moths). My mother taught me that the width of the middle brown band predicts the severity of the upcoming winter. A narrow band means a bad winter and a wide band means a milder or shorter winter. Those woolly bears have 13 body segments and winter is 13 weeks long. Coincidence? Maybe. Probably.
Insects are popular winter weather signs. If you see ants marching single file or bees building nests high in the trees, get ready for a bad winter.
Labor Day weekend, we were prepping in Paradelle for the arrival of Hurricane Hermine and the wind picked up and acorns started bombarding my backyard deck from the oak trees. The squirrels and birds were also very, very active. You can attribute that to the coming storm, but acorns and squirrels have long been part of weather lore. A bumper crop of acorns (which has been predicted in my area) and squirrels that are more active than usual are supposed to mean a severe winter.
Is there a weather lore predictor that you have heard of? Leave a comment.