Sandhill cranes as seasonal forecasters – is this just bullshit?

Tom Stienstra at SFGate recently wrote that California can expect an  early, wet winter. How do we know this?

There’s a saying, “Birds never lie.”

If so, the best weather forecaster in the West, the migratory sandhill crane, is predicting an early winter with plenty of rain and snow.

Over the years, the timing of the migration of sandhill cranes south to the San Joaquin Valley has predicted winter weather, both wet and dry. Early migrations have meant big winters. Late migrations, the opposite.

I did extensive research (by which mean a few minutes on Google and Google Scholar and an email to the author, whose out-of-office reply says he’s off for two weeks camping and fishing and stuff). The ever-reliable Alex Breitler reported in August that early crane arrival means the cranes are doing well. The only thing I could find consistent with Stienstra’s argument about the cranes’ forecasting acumen was a bunch of other bloggers enthusiastically quoting Stienstra. I also wrote to the smartest climate/phenology person I know, who had never heard such a thing, and was puzzled at the assertion.

Anybody know if there’s anything to this, or is it just bullshit?


  1. John,
    Good question.
    I don’t know the answer. If someone claims to know an answer, my first question for them would be what physical or chemical variable the birds could be detecting and whether this variable(s) is an accurate predictor.
    For the birds to know when to migrate they would have to detect something that itself is an accurate predictor.
    I hope that someone has some details on this.

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