Dakota Datebook

Weather Lore

Friday, December 4, 2009


In North Dakota you can almost be sure that at some point during the day the discussion will turn to the weather, which is an important element of life on the Northern Plains, where conditions can rapidly change. Over the years, a local weather lore had developed that was used to predict conditions for the day or even long-term forecasts. Extra fuzz on a wooly caterpillar predicted a long, cold winter, and the darker its color, the worse the conditions. The height of muskrat dens was evidence of what to expect in snowfall – the higher the den, the deeper the snow. The first snowfall should fall six weeks after the last thunderstorm in September, although some lore relates this to the first fog of September.

On this date in 1903, it was announced that the Weather Bureau was compiling this local weather lore and had actually published a pamphlet of sayings from around the world. Professor Edward B. Garriott of the Weather Bureau was attempting to collect the various bits of weather wisdom and glean from them those sayings which might help understand and predict the weather. While it is true that this weather wisdom was acquired by observing weather related sequences over long periods of time, most of the long-term predictions were little more than guesses. In the case of the wooly caterpillar, since there were no acceptable standards as to the normal thickness of the fuzz or the color of this creature, this left a great deal of flexibility in predicting winter conditions. Short-term observations, however, were often creditable. Sayings such as ‘red sky in the morning, traveler take warning, red sky at night, travelers delight’ were acceptable standards. He surmised that red suns and pale moons, plants with upturned leaves and animals huddled together were all indicators of weather phenomena. He noted that when a cat washes herself, good weather can be expected, and bad weather when she licks her coat against the grain and washes herself over the ears or sits with her tail to the fire. Even arthritic conditions seemed to worsen as low pressure develops and grandpa’s knee may have been a good indicator of an approaching storm.

Professor Garriott found that birds flying low to the ground were evidence of an approaching rain or snow due to the effect of low pressure on their ability to fly in the thinner air. According to him, “everything is lovely when the goose honks on high,” although in North Dakota we have learned that high honking, south-bound geese in tight formation have Old Man Winter licking at their tail feathers – and that’s a fact!

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis

Sources :

The Bismarck Tribune December 4, 1903

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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