Meteorology is a notoriously tricky business, as anybody who has ever had to restrain themselves from cursing out the weatherman for yet another blown weather report can attest. But long before weathermen were standing in front of a green screen or broadcasting over the radio with information gathered from the latest meteorological gadgets, people relied on far less technological means to predict the coming weather. Quite often, this involved observing the behavior of animals and correlating that to the weather that would follow. Cows lying down? Must be a thunderstorm coming. Cats cleaning behind their ears? Might be rain on the way.
More relevant to our purposes, included in many of those observations were birds. For example, an old wives’ tale states that if birds feed during a storm, the rain will continue for a long time – but if they don’t, then the rain will end fairly quickly. But are these unwitting avian weathermen any more reliable than a modern weather report? More specifically, are they reliable at all?
In short, yes.
Most birds have what’s called the Vitali organ, a special middle-ear receptor that can sense extremely small changes in atmospheric pressure. With extreme sensitivity comes equally acute pain reception, so the faster the atmospheric pressure falls (indicating an approaching storm), the more birds that fly low (and the lower they fly) to the ground in an attempt to alleviate the discomfort caused by the pressure change in their ears at higher altitudes. They don’t have to be flying to escape the pain, either – if you notice a sudden and sharp increase in activity at your feeders or a massing on power lines, there’s probably a good chance that a storm is bearing down on your location. Conversely, if you notice that birds are flying high up in the sky, the weather is most likely clear.
The height at which birds are flying isn’t the only way you can use their actions to try and predict the weather. With a storm approaching, seagulls usually take a break from flying and seek refuge somewhere along the coast to wait the bad weather out. And all kinds of birds usually grow extremely quiet right before it begins to rain.
So while birds may not be able to alert you to tomorrow’s high temperature or if there’s going to be a frost overnight, they can still be useful and practical meteorological aids. And as for that old wives’ tale that you can determine the relative length of a period of rain by whether or not birds feed in a storm, there seems to be no hard evidence that either confirms or denies its premise. Happy birding!
- By Sean Peick (Guest Writer)
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