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A wooly winter?

What do the thickness of onion peels, the colors of a particular caterpillar and the tails of squirrels have in common?

Give up?

They’re all things that have found their way into weather folklore.

Senior editor Sarah Perreault and her staff at The Old Farmer’s Almanac often find themselves fielding questions about the weather.

“People want to know about our forecasts and frequently they wonder about weather folklore,” Perrault said.

And that’s where the wooly bear caterpillar, along with the onions, squirrels and other myths come into play. Each has found its way into weather folklore that has been passed down from generation to generation.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac has published many an article about the foretellers of weather - and locally, Porcupine Pat McKinney, environmental education coordinator for the Schuylkill Conservation District, has taught classes on weather folklore.

One of the myths common to the northeastern United States involves the coloration of a wooly bear caterpillar, he said. It is said that the longer the black bands, the more severe and cold the winter will be. But a wider middle brown band is associated with a milder winter. Furthermore, it is said that the positions of the darker bands indicate which parts of the season will be the coldest.

McKinney said another common myth involves the amount of acorns dropped from trees.

“Lots of acorns and nuts - nuts on the ground are called mast - mean that winter could be tough,” he said. “Frantic squirrels gathering nuts is another sign of a challenging winter.”

McKinney said some people take folklore to heart, including a maintenance man he met years ago while working at an outdoor education center in southern Ohio.

“He told me about doing everything according to the signs, meaning phases of the moon. For example, you don’t want to hammer nails in the wrong phase of the moon,” McKinney said.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac recently published some age-old folklore favorites used to predict what winter might have in store, including:

• Onion skins that are thicker than usual indicate a rough winter ahead.

• Squirrels with very bushy tails in the fall cue a colder winter.

• Mushrooms galore, much snow in store. No mushrooms at all, no snow will fall.

• If robins are seen near a house during the fall, the winter will be cold.

But Perreault said there are other sayings that can foretell short term weather patterns, such as to “Expect rain when dogs eat grass, oxen sniff the air, and swine are restless” and “Frogs croak loudly when it is about to rain.”

“One of my favorite weather folklore proverbs is about cows: ‘When cattle lie down in the pasture, it indicates early rain’,” she said. “I think I favor this one because I was born and raised in New Hampshire and have seen cows by the dozens when driving around our beautiful state.”

Another of Perreault’s favorites is that the faster a cricket chirps, the warmer the temperature.

“This adage was passed down to me by my grandfather and the cricket choir that rings out on a summer evening brings me back to my childhood days of counting chirps,” she said.

There is some science behind the folklore, she said. In the case of cows lying down, it’s said that they become restless when stormy weather approaches.

“Crickets are cold-blooded and take on the temperature of their surroundings. The insects’ muscles contract to produce chirping, based on chemical reactions. The warmer the temperature, the easier the cricket’s muscles activate, so the chirps increase,” Perreault said. “The cooler the temperature, the slower the reaction rate, and the less frequent the chirps.”

The 2023 Old Farmer’s Almanac is available now wherever books and magazines are sold. It includes weather forecasts, gardening tips, festive food recipes and practical life advice.

According to folklore, finding “mushrooms galore” means no snow in store. JILL WHALEN/TIMES NEWS
According to folklore, finding “mushrooms galore” means no snow in store. JILL WHALEN/TIMES NEWS
According to folklore, a large number of acorns on the ground might mean a harsh winter.
The banded wooly bear caterpillar feeds on low vegetation and its very hairy appearance discourages most birds from eating them. They are a late summer/early fall caterpillar. JILL WHALEN/TIMES NEWS