For the Birds Radio Program: Groundhog Day

Original Air Date: Feb. 2, 1996

If you really believe groundhogs can predict the weather, you might not want to hear what Laura Erickson has to say today. (3:22) Date verified.

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Today is the day that people everywhere look to the groundhog for predictions about the future. My kids have been laughing about TV commercials for some Psychic Friends Network, but is that really any sillier than predicting the length and severity of winter by waking up some poor hibernating rodent and forcing it to look for its shadow—something it’s probably completely unaware that it even has?

I have trouble believing that any wild creatures have a clue about what future weather will bring. Most years I don’t see a single junco at my feeder. Even when conditions are pretty mild, juncoes prefer to winter south of here, where temperatures are higher and snow less deep. So why, during this unusually cold and snowy winter do I suddenly have three or four juncoes who have stayed at my feeder all season? They obviously weren’t listening to the Psychic Friends Network or checking out wooly bear caterpillars or any of the other signals that supposedly predict the future.

Last year a pair of ravens began nesting near Wisconsin Point in February. Ravens are the smartest of all birds, yet these guys didn’t know it was going to get too cold to bring off babies. Mourning Doves that overwinter sometimes develop frostbitten toes, and sometimes even die from the subsequent infections. If birds knew how to accurately forecast weather, would 750,000 Lapland Longspurs have been killed on two Minnesota lakes, and literally millions of others throughout Minnesota and Iowa in an ice storm in March, 1904?

This is not to say that birds don’t respond to their environment. In years when tent caterpillars are all over the place, so are Black-billed Cuckoos, and when snows are deep, owls often move south. But these birds are responding to current conditions, not predicting future ones.

It’s appealing to imagine that nature’s creatures have a special intuitive sense that allows them to read natural patterns and the weather, but I really do think that birds are far more like us humans than we realize. Like us, they rely on vision and hearing far more than smell, and many of them can reason and learn from experience. If a given bird learns to associate one natural condition, say, an abundance of food or early leaf fall with another condition, say, a severe winter, it may decide to migrate further when berries are abundant. Like us, birds sometimes completely misread natural conditions. For every human Wrong-Way Corrigan there’s a Blackburnian Warbler that accidentally wanders all the way to Scotland, or a Ruffed Grouse that strays from its forest and ends up in the stomach of a thresher shark in the Atlantic Ocean. And for every human meteorologist’s forecast that turns out to be completely wrong, there’s a bird that messes up a forecast. Like us, birds can be pretty stupid. But you’ll have to look awfully far away to find a bird stupid enough to make its life decisions based on what a groundhog is looking at on February second.