Large bird movements like migration, and bird behaviours such as changing calls, courtship displays, nesting and egg laying, underpin the whole rhythm of the year. Because they instinctively recognise changes in the length of daylight, atmospheric pressure and temperature, they often seemed to react to changes in the seasons before they were recognized by man. Thus birds were attributed with foresight, divine knowledge, and indeed with the ability to change weather or the seasons themselves.
In the modern era, with double glazed houses and sealed cars, i-pods and mobile phones and with our dependence on TV weather forecasts, it is easy to become distanced from birdlife. But birds do make accurate weather forecasters, and the weather lore associated with them is based on simple but accurate observation.
Hearing the first call of the cuckoo was important in the past, because before the days of calendars and weather forecasts, the natural world was a means of guidance as to when to sow or reap crops. Crops planted too early could be ruined by a frosty snap after they’d germinated, but those left too late could be destroyed by thunderstorms in the summer.
A similar role was taken up by the yellow wagtail in more modern times. After the introduction of the potato it was noted that these birds liked to nest in the potato fields where the large floppy leaves hid the baby birds. Like swallows the birds would return to the exact fields they’d been raised in to nest, and before long their arrival on the farm was taken as a sign to plant the crop.
Another welcome sign of spring is the arrival of the swallows and martins; – the swifts usually arrive later when the season is well established. If these birds fly high, it is a sign of a fine day, but if they are flying low to the earth it usually means wet unsettled weather. This is due to strong winds and atmospheric pressures keeping their prey low to the ground.
If a robin or a blackbird is singing at the top of a tree or a rooftop it is a sign of good weather. If they move down to lower branches it is a sign of rain. On the other hand if a thrush sings into the wind from the top of a tree it is a bad sign. This habit has led to the bird’s alternative name of ‘storm cock’. The green woodpecker is known in some parts as the ‘rain bird’ because its call is often heard before rain, and its drumming resembles thunder. Further signs of rain are hens huddling together and ducks and geese quacking and cackling loudly.
If seagulls are unduly noisy or appear inland, a storm is on the way (not so good a bit of weather lore now we have open tips, reservoirs and sewage farms!) If they settle on the shore or fly out to sea there will be good weather. Extreme bad weather can be indicated by the sudden appearance of seabirds that are usually confined to the open ocean and who only appear on land to breed on certain remote offshore islands. If one appears on the mainland coast it is a sign that it has been driven in by very bad weather, which will soon follow it.
Cold weather and long hard winters are shown by the early arrival of winter migrants such as ducks, geese and swans; together with much larger flocks than normal of fieldfares and redwings, which arrive from Scandinavia. These birds will also travel further down into southern Britain than they would in an average winter to avoid the bad weather. We also receive extra robins, blackbirds, starlings and pigeons from the north whilst saying good bye earlier to our own summer visitors.
If rooks fly straight from their nests the weather will be fine. If they twist and turn, rough weather is approaching. But if they stay by their nests screaming gales are on the way. When they are late leaving their nests and then hang around the village street it will rain later. High nests mean a good summer, but if they build lower to the ground it means bad weather.
Image of a Mistle Thrush by Steve Greaves. Mammatus clouds by Mr Stoatie