Louisville Courier Journal
Published 9:53 AM EST Nov 8, 2019
He cranes his neck and points to the top branches of a tall 35-foot Tulip Poplar. It's there that WLKY meteorologist John Belski has spied a sign of a rough winter ahead for Southern Indiana and Louisville.
"The higher the squirrel nest the colder the winter is supposed to be and look how close it is to the top," Belski points out. "The squirrels are building at record heights. This tree has never had a nest at the absolute top before. The highest I've seen in previous years has been about 10 feet below that spot."
That just may mean we're in for a cold winter. And if this weekend's weather prediction of temperatures dipping into the 20s has anything to do with it, that might just be right.
Or is it?
Belski is a professional meteorologist who uses science and technology when forecasting the weather on television, but he also enjoys turning to folklore for fun. And he's really good at it.
Each fall for the past five years, we've dropped by Belski's backyard in Southern Indiana and recorded his winter weather predictions based on signs provided by good ol' Mother Nature — things like the location of those squirrel nests, the color and abundance of berries on bushes, the black and brown stripes on caterpillars and more.
Each folklore forecast tells a different tale, from cold winters to large snowstorms to ice conditions.
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We've kept track of his accuracy and with his more than 40 years of experience, it's no surprise — his folklore observations have resulted in some eerily accurate predictions.
The super warm December in 2015 when temperatures hit 70 degrees comes to mind. So does an unusually long stretch of extremely cold temperatures during the winter of 2018.
That fall, Belski warned us to "buy a warm winter coat" after he noticed larger than usual hedge apples and an abundance of red berries on several ornamental bushes.
But this winter? He says anything could happen because of three peculiar and out of the ordinary observations Belski has noticed since July. And it has to do with baby caterpillars.
"It's very rare to see baby caterpillars," Belski said, which indicates a rough winter ahead.
And besides those extremely high squirrel nests, he also found something unexpected in this year's crop of persimmon seeds.
"I have been looking at persimmon seeds for 40 years," he said. "I'll cut over 100 seeds every year and I always find lots of tiny images of spoons inside, which indicate snow."
Persimmon seeds also can show a tiny white shape of a knife when they are cut open. The knife is said to predict a bitterly cold winter is coming.
And there is a third shape that shows up in persimmons — a fork. Rarely has Belski found a substantial number of forks — until this year.
"If I cut open 100 persimmons, I will usually only find one fork," he said. "But this year over 60 percent were forks. That's highly unusual. It's crazy."
The image of a fork inside a persimmon seed means a mild winter ahead in the folklore forecast.
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But before you mothball your ultra heavy winter coast, the author of "Backyard Weather Folklore: 1600 Easy Ways to Predict the Weather," thinks the peculiar and conflicting signs in nature this fall could mean we're in for some unusual weather.
Here's what it all means:
WOOLLY WORM CATERPILLARS
Folklore: This is the most famous folklore predictor and there are a number of sayings about the woolly worms. The most recognized is about the brown band between the black bands on either end. The larger the brown band, the milder the winter.
Belski doesn't put a lot of weight on the woolly worm and he doesn't even think the banding is all that important, well, this year anyway. He's way more focused on baby woolly worms, which indicate a rough winter in the future.
"The really big news is all the baby woolly worms we started seeing in July and August," he said. "It is rare to see baby woolly worms in the first place and to see large numbers is significant."
The last time Belski found baby woolly worms in the summer was about six years ago.
"I don't know if you remember but in 2013 and 2014, we had very long steady cold winters with as much as 30 inches of snow," he said. "That was the last time I saw baby woolly worms — and now they are back!"
Forecast: Cold Winter
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There are two common folklore forecasts around squirrels, both of which Belski looks for in his weather predictions.
Folklore: If squirrels store a lot of food before the winter, it will be a cold one.
"The squirrels have been burying a lot of their food to store it up for the winter," said Belski. "I noticed them burying nuts three to four weeks earlier than past years. And there have been a larger than normal amount of nuts this year, too."
Forecast: Cold Winter
Folklore: If the squirrels build their nests high in the tree, the winter will be cold.
Remember what Belski found in that 35-foot Poplar Tree. "Most nests are extremely high this year. In fact, the highest I have ever seen them," he said.
Forecast: Cold Winter
Folklore: This one means different things in different parts of the country. When you cut open a persimmon seed, you will see a white marking and each indicates something different for the winter ahead.
If it is in the shape of a knife, that means the winter winds will knife through you so it will be a cold winter.
If it is a fork, that means a normal winter.
The spoon is where there is lots of confusion.
Across the northern states, a spoon is like a shovel, meaning there will be lots of snow to shovel. However, further south, including in our area, the spoon means a mild winter also referred to as a spoon-fed winter.
"I have been looking at persimmon seeds for more than 40 years. I cut open about 100 each year and more than 80% of the time we have spoons in our local persimmon seeds," Belski said. "But this year I am seeing something I have never seen before. More than 60% are forks. The other 40% are knives. It's all over the place, its crazy."
Forecast: Normal Winter
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But not so fast. It's rare to have an abundance of forks show up in persimmon seeds in our region in one season, said Belski. Much like the unusual sightings of baby wooly worms, the forks in the persimmon seeds may point to an unusual weather pattern this winter.
OTHER FOLKLORE FORECAST PREDICTIONS
Folklore: An abundant crop of berries is a sign of a cold, snowy winter.
"There are a lot of red berries," Belski said pointing to an ornamental bush in his backyard. "But they are not as brilliant red or shiny as they were last year, which could indicate a milder winter than last year."
Forecast: Cold Winter — but perhaps a bit milder than last winter
Folklore: A big crop of hedge apples means a cold and snowy winter will follow. The size of the hedge apple is also important. This season the crop is about normal and the size is average.
Forecast: Mild Winter for both. But Belski is throwing the hedge apples out this year. He feels like the drought we experienced this summer may have affected the crop and it's not a solid predictor for the winter ahead.
Folklore: When flowers that usually bloom during the spring also have a second bloom in the fall, you can expect a cold winter.
That is exactly what is happening this year. There have been a number of flowers that had a second bloom in the last few weeks, including the Quince in Belski's garden.
Flowers that hold onto their blooms late in the season is also a sign of a cold winter.
Forecast: Cold Winter
ACORNS AND NUTS
Folklore: A large supply of acorns in the fall is a sign of a cold winter on the way.
"There are a lot of acorns and nuts this season and the squirrels I have noticed started burying them in July and August, which is unusually early," said Belski
Forecast: Cold Winter
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So, what does it all mean?
If you're scratching your head asking what all that even means, Belski boils the signs down to a couple of things.
"First I would say that based on the squirrel's nests, the high number of nuts they are burying and the rare sighting of baby woolly worms, this winter is going to be worse than last winter, which wasn't too bad," he said.
"But all those forks in the persimmon seeds ... I've never seen that before and I feel like its a sign that something unusual is going to happen with the weather this winter."
Sounds like we need to make certain we locate our windshield ice scrapper, the snow shovel and all our warm winter hats, jackets and gloves.
"Now I am kind of nervous hearing myself talk about all this," Belski laughed. "When January comes and it gets really freaky out, you can say 'it's those forks and baby caterpillars.' They said it would be something weird this year."
Bundle up, Louisville.
Reach Kirby Adams at [email protected] or Twitter @kirbylouisville. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/kirbya.
The Frymire Winter Weather Prediction
The annual Frymire weather prediction is calling for more than 50 inches of snow and cold in the Central Kentucky region this winter. The prediction is named for Irvington, Kentucky resident Dick Frymire, who used a Japanese maple tree and a formula built around it to predict winter weather for the coming year. Frymire died in 2013, but his family continues his legacy.
Here's what the family predicts for the 2019/20 winter:
- Nov. 14: 32 degrees
- Nov. 19: Sleet
- Nov. 26: 1-inch snow
- Dec. 15: 2 inches snow
- Dec. 24: 9 inches snow
- Dec. 28: 2 inches snow
- Dec. 29: 4 inches snow
- Dec. 30: 1-inch snow
- Jan. 1: Extreme cold (9 degrees)
- Jan. 6: Coldest day (-2 degrees)
- Jan. 13: Cold surge ends
- Jan. 14: 6 inches snow
- Jan. 17: 10 inches snow
- Jan. 20: 4 inches snow
- Jan. 27: Sleet to 2 inches snow
- Feb. 1: Cold, 14 degrees
- Feb. 12: Cold ends
- Feb. 14: Wet snow, 5 inches
- Feb. 17: Flurries
- Feb. 20: Wind and snow, 3 inches
- March 15: Last snow, 4 inches
- March 18: 60 degrees
Compiled by J.L. Frymire. For more info, email [email protected]