By the Masked Biologist
Special to the Star Journal
Last fall, I wrote an article where I examined signs of a hard winter as presented in a Farmer’s Almanac. At the time, there were multiple indicators that were pointing to a severe winter. Unusually high mouse activity, heavy acorn drop and squirrel nut gathering were three of my first observations. Going down their list of 20 signs, I also said that I saw spiders entering the home in large numbers and spinning larger than usual webs. I observed heavy and numerous frogs during August, some in yards right in the city of Rhinelander. I even recalled noticing two woodpeckers sharing a tree one day.
I posed the question at the time: Can rodents, spider webs, woodpeckers and oak trees tell us what to expect for the coming winter? We know some animals can sense when an earthquake is about to hit, or a tsunami, or a tornado. These creatures have amazing adaptations that have allowed them to adjust their behavior to ensure the survival of their species through large scale natural disasters. On the other hand, maybe we are looking for answers in areas where they don’t actually exist. I decided that I would have to try to remember to come back and revisit whether the natural signs were accurate. Much to my disappointment, they were completely wrong. We had very few subzero nights, and our snow was not very deep. We had a couple of midwinter thaws, one of which wiped out our snowpack so effectively that many winter activities were negatively impacted. In fact, as you may recall, for only the second time in 44 years, the ski races for the American Birkebeiner were officially cancelled.
How could all those signs be so wrong? I could see one sign being wrong, or right, but I was so certain with all of those signs that this was a “can’t miss” forecast.
Well, I am not a meteorologist, but I can take a few guesses as to how this might have happened.
Let’s start with the most obvious impact to our seasons right now—global warming or climate change. We are seeing changes of unprecedented scope and scale impact all of our seasons, but winter seems to bear the brunt of Mother Nature’s wrath. After all, we did get a significant amount of precipitation in late winter, but it fell as rain, not snow. Perhaps if we had winters that were starting as early as they were 50-100 years ago, and lasting as long as they used to, it would have been a different story.
Another question I might raise is about the definition of a hard or severe winter. A winter with freezing rain, or a heavy snow crust, might seem more severe than a foot of fluffy snow. Or, three feet of snow might seem more severe than days and days of bitter cold temperatures. I took the liberty of interpreting a hard winter or severe winter as one that hits hard, results in deep snow and cold temperatures, and held on as long as it could. Perhaps there are too many variables? Maybe those signs could be broken up to indicate a cold winter, or a snowy one. I am not sure if a pig picking up sticks would be more likely in the event of severe cold or severe snow, though.
What other explanations could there be? I read back through last fall’s article, and I have another theory. Skeptics of horoscopes, fortune cookies, and psychics claim that these all make statements that are vague and general enough that anyone could find a correlation between their own lives and these predictions or readings.
I can’t say whether that is true for fortune cookies, but I can tell you that I might have been trying hard to see these signs as dire winter predictions. After all, what is unusually high mouse foraging or spider web building activity? I would have to start writing down how many squirrels I saw gathering nuts, or how many pounds of acorns my oak tree drops. It is easy for me to say I have only ever seen two woodpeckers sharing a tree one time, but could that be because I don’t spend enough time staring at sickly trees?
Maybe natural world predictions of winter severity just don’t work. Maybe the climate is changing so quickly that predictions are fluid and severity is relative. I guess I don’t have all the answers. In fact, after some hard introspection, I must admit I have even less answers than I first thought. How about you? Did winter meet your expectations or, like me, did you miss the mark?
The Masked Biologist earned a Bachelor of Science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. His work in natural resource agencies across the country provided opportunities to gain experience with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook. Email questions to MaskedBiologist@charter.net.