nature survival rhymes and their origins

There is no shortage of dangers in the wilderness.  To make remembering them easy people have created rhymes (mnemonics) about everything from plants to animals, and even the weather.  If you need a refresher on the rhymes because you’re teaching your kids, or are curious about their history, this post is for you.

Below you’ll find a few of our favorites.

If red touches black venom they lack, if red touches yellow kill a fellow

This rhyme was created to help people in the USA determine if a snake is the venomous coral snake or the harmless milk or kingsnake.  We emphasize USA here because this does not apply outside of the US or to all US species.  

People import snakes from all over the world and sometimes they get loose.  If you remember this survival rhyme, also remember that it was meant to identify coral vs. milk and kingsnakes, and never engage when you come across one.

This mnemonic doesn’t have a guaranteed origin, but it may have come from a man in the 1860’s named “Fat” Jack Loticus who is not the modern day singer.

Pink sky at night sailors delight, pink sky at morn, sailors be warned

This mnemonic saying has been used for predicting sailing conditions for about as long as we’ve been sailing.  In fact it was referenced in the bible as a note to shepherds in the Book of Matthew (you can read each variation here).  Although the English version didn’t come around until years later, the rhyme is a reference to atmospheric conditions.

When the sky is red at sunset it is a sign that high pressure is rolling in from the west and the next day will be clear.  The reverse would mean storms are potentially coming if you see it in the morning.  

The red skies are light being reflected through air particles and moisture which can also change the clouds to red.  As the air cleans up there may be less of a chance of a storm which is why it would be “smooth sailing” if the saying is true. 

The origin is unknown, and it exists in multiple languages.  The first studies and recording of meteorology date back to 3,000BC, so the saying could have started more than 5,000 years ago.

If it’s brown lay down, if it’s black fight back, if its white say goodnight

This rhyme originated to help people know what to do when a bear attacks.  If it’s a black bear the rhyme would indicate you want to fight back.  When a grizzly bear is heading towards you, you’d lie down and play dead.  Is a polar bear coming at you?  According to the mnemonic you’re about to die.

Although this may sound like good advice, WebMD makes an important point that you first need to identify why the bear is coming at you and the situation around you.  And then take the proper action which you can learn by attending a quality survival class taught by certified professionals that manage and work at the parks where bears live.

Leaves of three let them be, leaves of four eat some more

Leaves of three is a reference to remind you to leave poison ivy alone, and the hit TV show the Simpsons added their own flare when Homer included “leaves of four eat some more”.  Although the saying is funny, it is not safe to eat any plant unless you can positively identify it and that it is not treated with hazardous chemicals.

There is a related saying here regarding the vine of the poison ivy plant that goes “hairy vine no friend of mine.”

If the Berry is White Take Flight

This rhyme has a dual meaning.  For some people it means you’ll die if you eat white berries and the “take flight” part is your soul leaving while for others it means you should leave the plant alone.  This is because many white berries (around 90%) are toxic, and has some other advice when eating berries in the wild here.

There’s no shortage of ways to remember how to survive in the wild, including using tools like a compass and “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” which refers to north, south, east, and west, or “being humble around an umble” as numerous types of umble plants like the poison hemlock.  Kids tend to laugh when they hear “nope rope” which is a reference to venomous snakes, and the laughter may help them to remember not to go near it.  If you have a favorite, leave it in the comments section below.

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