Nature's forecasters

Published: Friday 31 July 2009

Nature's forecasters

Down to Earth  
Proof in hand Red velvet mites mean more rains are coming
Photograph by Aparna Pallavi
Aparna Pallavi

Tribals read weather clues in birds, insects, wind and sky

Tension was high in Manikwada village in Wardha district of Maharashtra. Weather forecasts by Akashvani and newspapers said contradictory things, promising early monsoons one day and delayed monsoons the next, heavy rainfall one day and scanty the next. Every day farmers waited for the rain, and postponed sowing for yet another agonizing day.

Finally, elderly farmer Jagannath Manmode decided to do what his ancestors had always done. On the evening of June 26, he observed the western sky carefully and announced to his family that the rain was coming. Next day he sowed cotton, tur and soybean in the dry earth. On June 28, the village as well as parts of the Vidarbha region received their first good rain of the season.

Others, who started sowing on June 29, were sheepish but refused to admit they had been outdone by the old man."We too had heard the perti wha bird, you know," said middle-aged sarpanch Keshav Dhole. "But we decided to wait for the rain to be on the safe side."

In the tribal-dominated eastern part of Vidarbha farmers still trust their ancient weather science for predicting rains, both long and short term. They read signs of nature, like the behaviour of birds, animals and insects, colours in the sky, formation of clouds and the colour of the falling rain.

The signs vary from village to village, even person to person. But in this tribal pocket sandwiched between the Nagpur, Amravati and Wardha districts, farmers identify certain signs that are trusted by almost everyone.

The most important sign is the perti wha bird. "It is a small brown bird with blue streaks," explained Dhole. "It must be migratory because it is seen in this region only just before the monsoons." The call of the bird, interpreted by villagers as perti wha, meaning 'let the sowing begin' in Marathi, is believed to be a sign that rains are on their way. Red velvet mite, a small fuzzy insect known as miragya kitak in the area, that shows up in the soil after the first rains, is a sign of more rains. In early July the insect was seen crawling in the farms there.

A year's rainfall can be predicted by looking at the way birds build nests. "If nests are towards the top of trees expect heavy rains," said Nagorao Pote of nearby Jamgaon village. "The lower the nest, the lesser the rains." This year, farmers said, the nests are high on the trees.

Rajesh Barsagade, a young researcher from Chandrapur, said the placement of nests, though considered an important sign, is interpreted differently by tribals in Chandrapur. "If the nest is in the centre of the tree, close to the trunk, it means heavy rains. But if birds build their nests on the tips of the branches, it means scanty rains."

The colour of the evening sky also offers clues, though again, interpretations differ. Red means more rain, white means a gap in rains, said Bapurao Dhole, an old farmer in Susundra village. For Manmode of Manikwada red, yellow and white all mean rains, but each colour combination indicates a different pattern of rain. "A sky mostly red, tinged with white and yellow means a jhad (gentle, steady rainfall that continues for days, even weeks)," he said. "But I have not seen that colour in the sky for over a decade, and we have had no jhads." A rainbow portends good rains.

Farmers say while they do pay attention to weather forecasts on the radio and in newspapers, nature's signs are more accurate than the weather bulletins. One reason is that nature's signs tend to be localized, while the Met predictions are generalized.

Nature's weather forecasters are becoming fewer. Miragya kitak, which were seen in clusters a few years ago, are now in far fewer numbers, and almost always singly. The numbers of the perti wha bird too have fallen drastically in the past decade. At this rate Manmode won't always be so lucky in surprising other farmers in his village.

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