Brace yourselves - February 2nd is Groundhog Day! Here come the yearly articles and social media posts looking to the lowly groundhog to predict the arrival of spring. You've probably heard of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog in Pennsylvania - but here in Alabama, we have Birmingham Bill of the Birmingham, Alabama Zoo. We also have lots of other folklore weather predictions here in the south: wooly bears, hornet's nests, and persimmon seeds - just to name a few. But exactly how well do these time honored predictions work? Can you really use them to make long term weather predictions? Let's take a look and see...
For centuries, southerners have sworn by the shape of the inner part of a persimmon seed to predict winter weather. When the seed of a ripe persimmon is cut in half lengthwise, it normally has a distinct shape that will look like either a spoon, a fork, or a knife. The legend for weather predicting goes like this: if the seed is shaped like a fork, the winter will be mild. If it's shaped like a spoon or shovel, expect snow and slush (think of the spoon as more of a snow shovel in this scenario). A seed in the shape of a knife means the winter will be extremely cold, harsh and icy - or will "cut like a knife." When persimmons were ripe last fall and several of my local friends posted photos from northwest Alabama, most were spoon shaped. So, were the seeds correct? So far we haven't seen much snow and slush in the upper left hand corner of the state - but winter is far from over. We have seen snow fall in north Alabama in the past as late as early April. The persimmon seed predictor could turn out to be correct - and there's a good reason to think they might be according to people who have documented their predictions over years. The University of Missouri's Jefferson County Extension Office, for example, has been collecting persimmon seeds for 19 years. Out of those 19 years, they have found 15 winters to be accurately predicted by the shape of the seeds. That's roughly 79% accuracy! It's not a controlled study - but, nonetheless, 79% accuracy for long range weather predicting is pretty darn good - so don't dismiss the persimmon seed as a predictor just yet!
What about the "wooly bear" or some call it the "wooly worm?" A lot of southern folks swear by this predictor. The wooly bear is the brown and black banded fuzzy catepillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth. These little guys make their appearance in late summer to early fall over most of the eastern United States. The size and placement of it's colored bands are supposedly an indicator of the coming winter weather. In case you've never heard of this predictor, here's a chart:
The wooly bear in the photo below was found in October of 2022 in Jamestown, Tennessee by local resident, Chad Conaster. If the folklore surrounding the wooly bear is correct, then that area of northern Tennessee (roughly between Nashville and Knoxville) should be having a mild winter. With the exception of the extremely low temps that came with the "arctic blast" a few days in late December of 2022, the weather actually has been rather mild in that area. We still have a couple months of winter yet to come, however - so only time will tell if the little fuzzy guys were correct this year!
There are lots of other "old ways" of predicting the weather - especially here in the south. One old saying goes like this: "See how high the hornet’s nest; ’Twill tell how high the snow will rest." The photo below was taken in the Fall of 2022 in Franklin County, Alabama, by Johnny Bowen. Although it's hard to see in the photo, the nest is only three to four feet off the ground. According to folklore, this is supposed to indicate very little to no snow for the winter. So far it's correct!
Groundhog Predictions Most weather folklore centers around winter weather predictions - but Groundhog Day is said to predict the end of winter and the arrival of spring. It's actually not a southern born tradition, but a very old Pennsylvania Dutch superstition. We love folklore in the south, however, and have been watching to see if the groundhog sees his shadow for generations! Groundhog day is always February 2nd. Supposedly, if a groundhog comes out of hibernation on that day, exits his den and sees his shadow, we'll have six more weeks of winter weather. If he emerges and doesn't see his shadow, spring will come early. For more than a decade, the original Birmingham Bill, the Birmingham Zoo's resident groundhog, was observed to make this prediction. His last prediction before his death was in 1996. Since then, several successors have stood in for Birmingham Bill. Last year in 2022, Birmingham Bill was not done with his winter hibernation - so, rather than disturb him, no prediction was made. Will Birmingham Bill make an appearance this year? We'll just have to wait and see! Incidentally, the accuracy of the groundhog's weather predicting is not so great. According to stats on wikipedia, the famous groundhog in Pennsylvania, Punxsutawney Phil, has been correct less than 50% of the time since 1969. So, I wouldn't bet the farm on any groundhog predictions about springtime! I'll be watching nonetheless...just because groundhogs are so darn cute!
Do you have a favorite bit of folklore that predicts the weather? Leave a note in the comments!
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