10 Ways Animals Supposedly Predict the Weather

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
Cows lie down when it rains, right? So why are these cows standing up? Is this just a myth?
Chris Hyde/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Various animals have been historically believed to predict the weather, such as groundhogs predicting winter duration, cows lying down before rain and frogs croaking loudly to indicate upcoming rain.
  • While some behaviors may have a basis in how animals react to environmental changes (like air pressure or humidity), many of these beliefs are myths without scientific support.
  • Despite the lack of hard evidence for most animal-based weather predictions, observations of animal behavior can still offer fascinating insights into their sensitivity to nature's changes.

The cow in the meadow may go "moo," but is she bidding a simple hello, asking for more hay or warning of an impending storm? Meteorology is pretty advanced now, thanks to the impressive capabilities of modern weather radar and other tools, but it wasn't all that long ago that humans relied on far less scientific methods for predictions of rain, sleet, snow or sun. In fact, the behavior of animals like good old Bessie the cow has been popularly used for centuries to help people get a leg up on all types of weather emergencies. Although these behaviors might seem mysterious on the front end, experts credit the fact that animals are more finely attuned to nature and its changing states (humidity, air pressure, length of the day) with their seeming ability to predict the daily or seasonal forecast [source: Thomas].

But not every animal is a genius forecaster. Although some species seem to have a serious nose (or snout) for meteorology, others have garnered reputations based on fanciful myths, rumors and silly fun. Keep reading to find out which animals are fit for an internship at The Weather Channel and which should keep their day jobs.


10: The Groundhog's Shadow Predicts Winter

Groundhog handler Ron Ploucha holds Punxsutawney Phil after he saw his shadow predicting six more weeks of winter during the 126th annual Groundhog Day festivities on Feb. 2, 2012 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Phil was right that year, for a change.
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Arguably the most famous of all weather-predicting animals, this furry rodent is held in such high esteem that it boasts a holiday, a fan club and a hit film to boot (the Bill Murray flick "Groundhog Day," in case you've been hiding in a hole of your own). On Feb. 2 of every year, people around the U.S. fix their collective gazes on their regionally appropriate groundhog, with Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania being the most celebrated. If Phil emerges from his hibernation hole in the ground to see his shadow (yielded by a sunny day), that means six more weeks of winter. If the day is cloudy, and therefore shadow-prohibitive, it indicates an early spring.

The legend dates back centuries to the European tradition of Candlemas Day, on which clergy would bless and hand out candles to the people. The idea developed that a cloudy Candlemas Day predicted an early spring, and vice versa. At some point, the Germans took it a step further and randomly decided that a shadow-casting hedgehog was predictive of a longer winter. When a significant number of Germans immigrated to Pennsylvania they assigned the groundhog with its cousin's storied responsibilities [source: The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club].


Analysis of data from 1999 to 2012 showed groundhogs accurately predicted winter's end four times in 13 years, which isn't exactly impressive [source: Evans]. Unless Phil has cosmic pull over cloud cover, it's safe to say that he has little to no idea about impending weather. Still, the tradition is all in good fun. Plus who doesn't need a little hope to hold onto in the frigid winter months?

9: Cows Lie Down in the Pasture Before Rain

The jury is still out on whether cows lie down before bad weather.
frederic prochasson/iStock/Thinkstock

Cows provide us with creamy milk, succulent steaks and velvety-soft baby calves to ooh and ah over. But do they have precognitive weather abilities? Word on the farm is that cows are generally pretty chilled- out creatures until bad weather approaches, at which time they become restless and even lie down in pasture to smartly preserve a dry spot amid a bunch of muddy puddles [source: Mother Nature Network].

But before you ditch that weather app on your phone in favor of farmside-seating, take heed – when cows lie down they're probably just chewing their cud, rather than pondering the five-day forecast [source: Farmers' Almanac]. There is one study that showed that cows tend to stand longer when the weather is hot as they try to dissipate the heat all over their bodies. And that they also seek shade during sunny times. (Who doesn't?) But the study didn't take on the question of whether cows always lie down before it rains [source: Allen et al.]. Chances are, they don't.


8: Frogs Croak Loudly When It's About to Rain

When rain's a-comin', frogs get a-courtin'. That's why they croak so much more.

You might want to focus on frogs rather than cows as your guides for rain. Our amphibious friends are fascinating, to say the least. With more than 4,700 makes and models of these jumpy guys around the globe, frogs can range in size from a dime to more than 7 pounds (3 kilograms) in weight. In fact, they actually absorb water through their skin, rather than drinking it the boring way that humans and most other animals do [source: Defenders of Wildlife]. Talk about a party trick!

Although some croaking is normal in a frog-friendly environment, grab your umbrella if you hear them calling out with exceptional fervor. Experts attribute this phenomenon to the fact that frogs mate, then lay eggs in bodies of freshwater. So, frogs are more likely to be successful at reproduction following a good rain because there's more watery real estate to choose from. Hence, all the mate-summoning croaks that tend to occur right before a shower [source: Grandinetti]. The next time you hear a symphony of croaking, think of it as a little bit of amphibious Barry White to "set the mood," so to speak. Then grab your raincoat or get under cover ... quick!


7: Squirrel Nest Location Indicates Type of Winter

Two baby squirrels emerge from their nest. Does the nest location foretell the kind of winter we might have?
Sally Newcomb/iStock/Thinkstock

Squirrels are adept at leaping from tree limb to tree limb, gathering acorns and darting around in front of my car just for the fun of it, but can our bushy-tailed neighbors offer insight into the winter ahead? According to long-held lore, careful observation of squirrel nesting patterns can predict how severe the coming winter will be. If nests are predominantly located high in trees, one can deduce that winter weather will be exceptionally harsh; lower nests indicating milder temps on the horizon.

Although there isn't any way to conclusively debunk this theory, there is zero hard evidence to back it up, either. Experts say that past and current weather are more likely to influence behaviors such as where a furry friend sets up shop [source: WGN].


Still, squirrels are pretty entertaining to observe, which is probably why there are several other theories out there regarding weather-related behavior. For example, an abundance of overly plump ones is alleged to indicate a tough winter to come. Also looking at whether a squirrel gathers acorns at a leisurely or hurried pace can supposedly tell you what kind of winter you can look forward to [sources: Lovern, Brown].

6: Birds Evacuate Before Major Storms

Scientists noticed that golden-winged warblers left town days before a tornado in Tennessee and returned afterwards. It could be they were able to hear the infrasound from the approaching storm system.
Daniel Trim Photography/Getty Images

For many years people have believed that birds fly low when a storm is approaching, and high in fair weather. The idea behind this is that increased air pressure commonly caused by storm systems is painful to birds, so they opt to skim the earth, rather than the clouds, when in flight [source: Mother Nature Network].

Recent findings may have one-upped that theory, suggesting that birds actually possess the capability to evacuate before bad weather hits. Scientists studying a group of Tennessee-based golden-winged warblers documented that the birds flew south in advance of a devastating tornado and made their way back a few days later, when everything had settled. The scientists hypothesize that the birds heard infrasound (a low-frequency noise) coming from an approaching storm system days in advance and very smartly got out of town before catastrophe struck. This ability to detect infrasound helps our feathered friends settle on migration patterns because they can identify treacherous weather far before they can see it – sort of like built-in weather radar [source: Arnold]. Meteorologists, eat your hearts out!


5: Snakes Slither Away From Earthquakes

Snakes can sense earthquakes immediately before they occur. But what about days in advance?

Finally, a reason to have snakes around that I can get behind! The legend dates back to the first account of such behavior in 373 B.C.E., when snakes and a number of other creatures are said to have hit the proverbial highway several days before a major earthquake that decimated the city of Helice in Greece [source: Lombardi]. But do snakes really have earthquake-predictive powers?

The first thing to know is that earthquakes happen every day – it's just that most of the time they're so small, no one notices. Although the legendary Ring of Fire (the rim of the Pacific Ocean pockmarked by tons of volcanos) produces a significant number of quakes, no area of the world is exempt from such an event [source: USGS].


In the centuries since Helice, snake enthusiasts have continued to document movement patterns as they relate to earthquakes, although little hard evidence has been supplied. Scientists do acknowledge that serpents and other animals can sense earthquakes a few seconds before people do because they are better able to feel the initial wave. The area that remains murky, however, is whether animals can detect a quake days in advance of eruption. Are animals able to feel the ground tilting or electrical or magnetic field variations? As of now, scientists don't know [source: USGS].

4: Sheep Huddle Up Before Rain or Snow

Safety in numbers? Do sheep huddle together before bad weather?

I always thought that sheep are smarter than we give them credit for. These woolly coated beauties are known for spreading out on the farm to graze, but seem to occasionally draw into tight huddles. The tale, which farmers have sworn by for centuries, insists that sheep have a sixth sense that alerts them to approaching rain or snow, so they gather in a tight group to put all that wool to good use and stay warm. Incidentally, doing so also makes it easier for them to be herded. However, this is another classic example of animal behavior that has yet to be conclusively proved [source: DeBroder].

Incidentally, this seems to be the least disgusting of all sheep-related weather prediction theories. Sheep farmers in Iceland long believed that heavy rain can be expected if their charges urinate more often than normal in the pen. They also credit the color of said urine with having weather-predicting capabilities, with sunny yellow pee foretelling nice weather and gray calling for a rainy day [source: McMahon]. At the risk of being juvenile ... ewwwww.


3: Sneezing Cats Predict Rain

Cats may sneeze because of allergies or even a tooth problem. But not because it's about to rain.

I've had several cats in my life, all with different "superpowers," so to speak. Sabrina could sense imminent bacon-frying before it was even taken out of the package. Bonnie could walk upside down by her claws on the box springs underneath my bed and keep me up all night long. Chewy sneezed a lot. I never gave much credence to The Chewster's sinus habits before, but maybe I should have, according to a recently rediscovered book.

"Weather Proverbs," written in 1883, was commissioned by the American War Department, weirdly enough. In it, Army 1st Lt. HHC Dunwoody describes a range of fanciful ways that our feline friends are able to predict the weather. Probably the most widespread is the tale that a cat sneeze means rain is on the way [source: AOL]. Although I'd like to credit my kitty with being ultra-intuitive, there's little proof to back up this far-fetched idea. The more likely reasons that cats sneeze range from benign, such as dust or allergies, to more serious, like a tooth problem, cat-scratch fever or another infection [source: Animal Planet]. I suppose Chewy will not go down in history as an all-knowing weathercat, after all!


2: Wolves Howl When a Storm Is Approaching

Wolves howl mainly because, well, they're wolves and that's how they communicate. But scientists also think air pressure from an approaching storm might cause them to howl in pain.
Pierre Cardon/iStock/Thinkstock

The full moon is typically credited for inspiring howling wolves, but it turns out that another sky-related occurrence might cause a similar ruckus. Big storms bring with them a change in air pressure, so some experts believe that this weather adjustment hurts sensitive canine ears, causing them to howl in pain [source: Farmers' Almanac ]. It's hard to say for sure whether this is true, but anyone with sensitive ears who's ever driven through a mountainous region or flown with a head cold can vouch for the serious discomfort a change in air pressure can cause. Just to be safe, if you ever hear a wolf a-howling, it's a good idea to get undercover, both for protection from the rain, as well as the wolf itself – though they don't usually attack humans.

We do know that wolves howl for far more reasons than just a little ear discomfort. Scientists have pinpointed many functions for the occasional bay, such as attracting a mate, signaling alarm, communicating to the pack and just because they feel like it. You know what reason didn't make the cut, after careful study? The moon. That's right – there is no real evidence to show that the moon holds any fascination whatsoever for our vulpine friends [source: Richardson]. Now that's something to howl over!


1: Sharks Dive Deeper Before Hurricanes

Oceanographers have tracked sharks diving to deeper waters before hurricanes.

When I'm thinking about sharks, I'm usually too busy pondering their terrifying array of sharp teeth to consider what might be going on with their ears. As it turns out, everyone's favorite predator boasts ears sensitive enough that many experts say can detect changes in water and air pressure that typically accompany hurricanes and tropical storms. In fact, review of shark tracking patterns shows that they often react by diving into deeper waters to wait out the mayhem, as indicated by behavior before many storms, such as Hurricane Charley in 2004 and Tropical Storm Gabrielle in 2001 [sources: Welch, Farmers' Almanac ].

The ear theory has yet to be conclusively proven, with some experts saying that there are others ways by which sharks can identify approaching doom and take the necessary precautions [source: Frantz]. Be that as it may, it does seem that sharks, like many other animal brethren (who they'd probably find pretty tasty) do possess a sixth sense of sorts, which has probably contributed to their success in the whole "survival of the fittest" contest throughout time.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do scientists study animal behavior related to weather prediction?
Scientists study animal behavior and weather prediction through observation, tracking movements and correlating behaviors with specific weather events to understand any predictive patterns.
Can animal behavior be a reliable method for weather forecasting?
While some animal behaviors may be linked to weather changes due to their sensitivity to environmental cues, they cannot replace modern meteorological methods for reliable weather forecasting.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Ways Animals Supposedly Predict the Weather

I'm happy to observe the weather-predicting powers of friendly animals, like cows, kitties and sheep. All those snakes, wolves and sharks can keep to themselves, however. I certainly don't need their help as long as there's an app for that.

Related Articles

  • Allen, J.D., S.D. Anderson, R.J. Collier, and J.F. Smith. "Managing Heat Stress and Its Impact on Cow Behavior." 2013 (Feb. 21, 2014)http://www.wdmc.org/2013/Managing%20Heat%20Stress%20and%20Its%20Impact%20on%20Cow%20Behavior.pdf
  • Animal Planet. "Why is your cat sneezing?" 2015 (Feb. 20, 2015) http://www.animalplanet.com/pets/why-is-your-cat-sneezing/
  • AOL. "Can your cat's behavior predict the weather?" Feb. 21, 2014 (Feb. 20, 2015) http://www.aol.com/article/2014/02/21/can-your-cats-behavior-predict-the-weather/20835053/
  • Arnold, Carrie. "Birds May Have Sensed Severe Storms Days in Advance." National Geographic. Dec. 18, 2014 (Feb. 19, 2015) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/12/141218-birds-weather-tornadoes-science-animals-environment/
  • Brown, Linda. "Do animals really predict winter weather; nature column." NJ.com. Sept. 24, 2014 (Feb. 19, 2015) http://www.nj.com/hunterdon-county-democrat/index.ssf/2014/09/do_animals_really_predict_wint.html
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