Animals in Weather Folklore

by CruiseReady

Weather lore as shown in sayings about animals and the weather. A look at half a dozen sayings about bees, cats, ladybugs, gulls, and more

Are those old sayings about animals predicting the weather true? Do birds, insects, fish, and mammals exhibit particular behavior when they sense a coming change in the weather?

In the days before NOAA, The Weather Channel, and modern meteorology, people relied on their own ability to read 'signs' around them. And they observed animals to watch for some of those signs.

So, what about those old folksy sayings? Most of these sayings are more than folklore, which is often superstitious in nature. They developed from observed coincidences between animal behavior and weather events. Some of them demonstrate a relationship to things we now know about through meteorology. Others, not so much.

Here's a look at a half a dozen of them.

Image from

Six Sayings About Animals and the Weather

How True Are They?

Cat Washing

Image credit:   Ashaneen at

This article is a brief presentation of selected weather lore using the following six sayings about animals and the weather as examples:

  • Mare's Tales and Mackerel Scales Make lofty ships carry low sails
  • Bees Won't Swarm Before a Storm
  • In a Green Sky, the Cows Will Fly
  • When ladybugs swarm, Expect a day that’s warm
  • Sea Gull, Sea Gull, Sit on the Sand; It's never good weather while you're on the land
  • If a cat washes her face over her ear, 'Tis a sign the weather will be fine and clear

Mare's Tales and Mackerel Scales

Make lofty ships carry low sails.

Mares tails and mackerel scales

photo:  my own

While it seems to speak of horses and fish, this weather proverb is really about clouds.

As I was writing this article, I decided to step outside for a breath of fresh air.  And guess what I saw?  Here's the photo. Do you see mare's tails and mackerel scales?  Maybe. It's close, and quite a coincidence, don't you think?

Mare's tails refers to a particular type of cirrus clouds - cirrus uncinus - which some people think look like horse tails.

The meaning of mackerel scales is actually  a "mackerel sky" or "buttermilk sky," which displays high level altocumulus clouds.


Mares Tails and Mackerel Sky

Mares' Tails:
Mares' Tails:
Mackerel Scales
Mackerel Scales

More about Mares Tails and Mackerel Scales

Weather Lore vs. Meteorology

When the two types of clouds are present, a storm is possible, so they do, indeed, make sailors think of lowering their sails.  Why is that?

Cirrus clouds often form in the outflow of cumulonimbus, or storm clouds, and can be seen before the arrival of the storm clouds.  So, yes, those mare's tails could foretell storm.

Auto cumulus clouds are a mark of instability and moisture.  If warmer, moist air from the lower level meet this instability, thunderstorms can result.  

Sometimes that storm is brief, like the one that came soon after I snapped that sky picture.  That  seemed to bear out another saying about alto cumulus clouds:

" Mackerel sky, mackerel sky.

Never long wet and never long dry. " 

A Mare to Tell You How the Wind Blows


Bees Won't Swarm Before a Storm

Do bees really head for the hive because they know a storm is coming?

One of those old sayings is, "Bees will not swarm before a storm."

European Honey Bee


Do bees have a magical ability to sense a coming storm, and make a community decision to hightail it to the hive? 

Probably not.

But, it IS true that bees DO stay in their hive when the wind speed is above 10 to 15 mph or when the mercury dips into the mid 50's.  And, since it often turns cooler and breezy just before a storm hits, there is an apparent correlation.

 Image: European honey bee, PD


In a Green Sky, the Cows Will Fly

An Animals and Weather Saying about Tornadoes


 Image courtesy NOAA , PD

"In a green sky, the cows will fly," is an old saying about tornadoes. 

In the above old photo, of a tornado striking, there's a markedly green tinge to the sky.  But is that always the case?

Not always.  Green skies don't necessarily mean your cows will be hurled around by a tornado.  But they might.  And they might be picked up by a tornado even if the sky isn't green.

 There can be tornadoes when the sky isn't green, and there can be a green sky with no tornado activity.  The greenish color comes not from the tornado itself, but from . . .  well, apparently, there's no definitive answer. Yet.

An article in Scientific American, titled  Fact or Fiction?: If the Sky Is Green, Run for Cover—A Tornado Is Coming, ends on a decidedly undecided note.

Have You Seen a Green Tornado Sky?

Was There a Tornado with It?
  Display results
Personally, I'd just as soon not see one. Or a tornado either, for that matter!

Tornado Videos

With Green Skies

When ladybugs swarm, Expect a day that’s warm

Lady Bugs and Warm Weather

This saying might better be phrased "When ladybugs swarm, the day is warm."

The flight of ladybugs indicates the thermometer is already showing warm temperatures, rather than warm temperatures are on the way.

Heat gets stored under those pretty ladybug shells.  

If these little insects get too hot, they need to cool off.  Guess how they do it?  By flying!  Flying helps dissipate stored heat.


Ladybugs Coffee Mug

Sea Gull, Sea Gull, Sit on the Sand

It's never good weather while you're on the land

sitting seagullBirds of all types tend to roost, rather than fly high, when weather is about to turn bad. Long ago, coastal residents would expect a storm coming in from the sea when sea gulls would begin going inland.

A related saying about birds and the weather goes like this:

When birds fly low, Expect a blow

Watch the birds, or watch your barometer.  Barometric pressure drops before and is lower during storms, and the air becomes less dense.  It's more difficult for birds to fly high during periods of low pressure.  

Image credit:

A Saying about Cats and the Weather

If a cat washes her face over her ear, 'Tis a sign the weather will be fine and clear.

This saying is probably less true now than it once might have been. 

But it has more to do with static electricity than a mystical feline ability to prognosticate.

When atmospheric conditions are right, cats' fur can build up small amounts of static electricity.  Those conditions are the same ones that produce 'good' weather: higher barometric pressure and lower humidity.

A cat will moisten its fur so the charges will release or leak away.  Thus, cats may actually wash more in fair weather.

Why might that be less true today than in times past?  Simply because our homes are more 'climate controlled' today... and indoor cats, there with us, would be the ones more constantly observed.  

Black and White Cat cleaning face with Paw

Jigsaw Puzzle

Books for Children Who Like to Learn About the Weather

Kids books about weather cam help them channel a natural childhood curiosity into a passion for science. They may even find their way to a lucrative career in meteorology.
Updated: 06/02/2016, CruiseReady
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

Did you enjoy this page about animal weather lore? What's YOUR favorite weather saying?

CruiseReady on 05/28/2015

Yes, it is. And the connection between animals and these weather sayings is a great way to get kids interested in meteorology, too!

Marie on 05/28/2015

I'd heard of some of these sayings but definitely not all of them. It's certainly fun to explore the meanings behind the words.

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