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Why Birds Beat Groundhogs at Weather Forecasting

By Dawn Hewitt
Managing Editor | Bird Watcher's Digest

Old Punxsutawney Phil told us yesterday to expect the next six weeks to bring wintery weather. According to various web sites, Phil has made weather predictions for 130 years, with an accuracy rate of 39 percent. Considering that a coin toss would be accurate 50 percent of the time, maybe birds could be better weather forecasters than a large rodent, rudely awakened from hibernation while his human handlers check to see whether the sun is bright enough to cast a shadow.
No age or gender bias intended, but old wives have endowed many bird types with powers of prognostication, and some of that folk wisdom seems to have a scientific basis. It's doubtful that birds (or marmots) can predict weather for the next six weeks, or even for the next week, but birds probably can predict the weather for the next hour or two.
Bird Super Powers?
Birds can detect even small changes in barometric pressure, and there's evidence that they can hear low-frequency sound at great distance—powers beyond human abilities.
Bird Forecasting Folklore
Here's a collection of forecasting folklore that involves birds. Each adage probably resulted from countless observations and correlations with weather centuries ago. Much of it make scientific sense.
• Hawks [or geese or swallows] flying high means a clear sky. When they fly low, prepare for a blow.
• When birds of long flight hang about home, expect a storm.
• Birds more actively feed before a storm.
Can Birds Predict the Arrival of Spring?
By early February, most of us are eager for any signs that winter is winding down. The most reliable harbinger of spring is lengthening daylight. Birds sense that, too, and it affects their behavior. Do you think there is any truth to these statements?
• Wild geese moving north indicates that most of the winter is over.
• The American robin is a harbinger of spring.
Birds as Weather Forecasters
Some adages connect bird vocalizations to weather forecasts, but they are inconsistent in whether birds become noisy or silent before rain. Which do you think are true?
• When birds cease to sing, rain and thunder will probably occur.
• Cranes soaring aloft and quietly in the air foreshadows fair weather, but if they make much noise, as if consulting which way to go, it foreshadows a storm that's near at hand.
• When the voices of blackbirds are unusually shrill, or when blackbirds sing much in the morning, rain will follow.
• Loud and long singing of robins denotes rain.
• Birds usually grow extremely quiet right before it begins to rain.
• When birds sing during rain, the storm is nearly over.
Questionable Adages
Not all birds-as-meteorologists adages can be defended by science or logic. Like Punxsutawney Phil, it's fun to ascribe prognostication abilities to wildlife. Just because someone says something—it's not necessarily true.
By Dawn Hewitt, Managing Editor | Bird Watcher's Digest
We've all heard it countless times: Certain species of birds mate for life, including geese, swans, cranes, and eagles. It's a true statement, for the most part, but it's only part of the story. Lots of monogamous bird species cheat, and some "divorce"—but at rates much lower than humans.
About 90 percent of bird species are monogamous, which means a male and a female form a pair bond. But monogamy isn't the same as mating for life. A pair bond may last for just one nesting, such as with house wrens; one breeding season, common with most songbird species; several seasons, or life.
Social monogamy seems to be more common than fidelity to a mate. Social monogamy refers to the male bird's role in parenting. In most songbird species, the male defends a nest and territory, feeds his incubating mate, brings food to nestlings and feeds young fledglings. In some species the male incubates the eggs. Social monogamy is when a male bird is actively involved in nesting and rearing the young.
But genetic testing of songbird nestlings, even in socially monogamous species, shows that the father who sired them isn't necessarily the one who is helping to rear them. In other words, a socially monogamous female songbird sometimes "cheats" on the male with whom she has a bond. And her socially monogamous mate may have fathered eggs in other nests.
Sometimes a female bird carrying an egg fathered by her bonded mate will lay that egg in a different nest of the same species. So when you happen upon a songbird nest full of eggs—even of a socially monogamous species—you can't be sure who is the biologic father—or mother—of those eggs.
In other words, socially monogamous birds are not necessarily faithful partners, but they care for each other and for the young of their nest. Rearing young together does not imply mate fidelity. Studies of eastern bluebirds have found that nests with mixed parentage—that is, they have eggs by more than one father, or more than one mother, or both—are not uncommon.
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