Sivaiah, a farmer in Chintapalle village in southern India's Andhra Pradesh state is happy. The open bill storks have been flying in parabolic circles in the sky. It is a sign of impending rain. Now he can get his farming implements in order and prepare for the sowing season ahead.

His wife tells him the jaggery and salt at home have become damp. Someone reports a lightning in the north-east part of the village. The village is now abuzz with the talk of rains.

The village headman examines the length of the fruit called Flame of the Forest. If the seed at the bottom has matured, it will rain well at the beginning of the season. If the middle seed is matured, the middle part of the season will see good rain. And a good top seed is an indicator of end-of-season rain. Uniformly developed seeds bring uniform rain throughout.

These and many other such thumb rules drive rain prediction in rural Andhra Pradesh.

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For a country like India that is rain dependent it is crucial to accurately predict the onset of the monsoon, which is why every little variation is recorded to help farmers overcome uncertainties.

National weather bulletins hold little interest for farmers as they are generalised. He is more interested in weather in his village and he looks for signals from local weather parameters to start sowing his crops. Here the role of Indigenous Technical Knowledge (ITK) proves invaluable.

Mini-storm

Traditional weather wisdom has stirred up a mini-storm in scientific circles. What was being dismissed as folklore till a decade ago is now viewed seriously by scientists.

Dr K Ravi Shankar, senior scientist, Agriculture Extension and Transfer of Technology section at the Central Institute for Dryland Research in Agriculture, Hyderabad, has spent three years in the villages of Anantapur, Vishakapatnam and Ranga Reddy districts of Andhra Pradesh to gather information on folk wisdom.

He has walked door-to-door and spent time with village elders who shared with him their deep-rooted, almost secretive, traditional practices. In Andhra Pradesh alone, there are 24 bio indicators (insects, plants, animals) and 42 non bio indicators (clouds, wind, lightening) of rain prediction.

Thriving termites on tree  indicate good rain, according to
local beliefs [Al Jazeera]

Peacocks dancing and dragon flies swarming couple of hours before rainfall, are commonly known factors for rain prediction across the country. Not so well known signs are goats flapping ears, owls hooting and sheep huddling together. These are short range indicators of rain.

The otherwise slow red hairy caterpillar makes a dash for shelter before rainfall while foxes howl at dawn and dusk.

The height at which the weaver bird builds its nest is another curious but accurate indicator. If the nest is at a good height rains will be copious. If the nest is low, farmers expect scanty rain.

Animal sense

Entomologist Dr D Jagadeeswar Reddy says, "Insect movement is 100% reliable for rain forecasting." The way mosquitoes bite is different before rain. Ant colonies move en mass, sometimes carrying eggs and this is seen as a precursor to rains. Thriving termites indicate rain too, says senior scientist Ravi Shankar.

Insect movement is 100% reliable for rain forecasting.

Dr D.Jagadeeswar Reddy, Entomologist

But how do they know? Scientists say animals, birds and insects can sense wind shift, humidity and pressure change and this alters their behaviour.

Insects sense the increased humidity through their antenna and react. Goats flap ears when the humidity increases as they feel uneasy. Flapping tends to cool their ears. Sheep huddle for a similar reason.

Owls hoot due to restlessness brought on by increased humidity. Frogs generally live under rocks. When there is a change in the atmospheric pressure the amount of air available to them under the rocks becomes less and they come out and croak. This is seen as a sure sign of rain.

There are plants too that predict rain. Plant phenology or the science of plant appearances is sometimes accurate to the date. While the Golden shower tree reaches flowering peak exactly 45 days before rains start, a neem tree in full bloom means ample rain, says Ravi Shankar.

Curious customs

Local communities over the centuries have devised weather-related customs that, they say, help bring in copious showers.

If a bleak monsoon is forecast, people in parts of India's hinterland gather together after the morning meal without washing their hands and pray for rain with their hands held up to the sky.

In another community, farmers keep frogs in an earthen pot covered by a piece of new cloth dyed in turmeric. They continuously pour water over it and shout "frog in water" while moving around the streets. They also pour water over other people of the village and on themselves – all this so that rains don't fail.

The huddling of goats is said to be an indicator of
approaching rains  [Al Jazeera]

Rain forecasting based on the Hindu almanac is a common practice among farmers, says Shankar. "Tatta Sanketam" or basket indicator is one such custom. A little boy is asked to lift a basket of jowar on his head in which a tumbler is placed. While doing so the tumbler falls. The planetary position in the direction where the tumbler falls is indicative of rain.

Between mid-December and mid-January, the farmers in Andhra Pradesh's Anantapur town go through a ritual every year. A priest collects grains from every farmer in the village. He carries this to Bhadrachalam town nearby to seek divine blessings, and returns the energised grains with a promise of a good crop. This month-long activity culminates with the harvest festival.

Combine forecast systems

Weather scientist Y S Ramakrishna says, "Traditional methods combined with scientific observations can prove better in forecasting weather than relying on a single method. The knowledge base has to be strengthened with the objective of attaining precision in weather forecasts for improving agro-advisories."

B Raji Reddy, the Director of Agro-meterology Research Centre concurs, "Traditional methods have been in practice for a long time. But you have to correlate bio-indicators with scientific data for dynamic weather readings."

Ravi Shankar has observed that although farmers largely depend on the cloud types, cloud movements and wind, they cross-check these with other bio-indicators.

"Of late there have been failures in rain forecast. In the last seven years or so dramatic changes have occurred in patterns of the various seasons. Monsoon rains have become unpredictable. Sometimes it arrives early, followed by a dry spell.

Then you have heavy rains at the end of the season, leading to floods and damage to standing crops. These changes have confused even birds and animals and they are trying to adapt themselves to the changing weather," says Shankar.

Source: Al Jazeera