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ZIMUNYA (Zimbabwe)-- As the summer planting season approaches in eastern Zimbabwe, small-scale farmers struggle with familiar questions: When will the rains come, and when should I sow my crops?

This year something else is keeping them awake: In late August the government issued a warning about a potential El NiAo weather pattern, associated with changes in weather patterns worldwide.

Should El NiAo arrive, Zimbabwe might see normal or higher-than-average rains, said Washington Zhakata, director of the country's Climate Change Department. More likely, though, there would not be enough rain.

Looking at the past observations ... once an El NiAo sets in, depending on the strength and nature of the El NiAo, the chances of bad rains or below-normal rainfall in Zimbabwe are between 50 and 65 percent, he said.

In trying to figure out what to plant and when this year, farmers are also missing an old ally: Birds, whose movements traditionally have helped predict coming weather.

In Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands the farming season typically starts in late October or early November. But in recent years the weather has become less predictable, and that is a growing problem for farmers.

At times the rainy season is now starting well into December. The weather is now changing, said Leonard Madanhire, a farmer in Zimunya, a village close to the Mozambique border.

Once, he said, farmers watched changes in the environment around them - particularly activity by birds - to work out whether or not they could expect a good season.

We used to learn a lot from the birds about the seasons. But these birds have long vanished, he said.

When different species of birds arrived or left told villagers in his subsistence farming community what might be coming: a storm, a change of seasons, even flooding.

Some farmers held off planting until they saw certain species of migratory birds. The appearance of one particular type of stork - known as shuramurove - foretold a good rainy season, for instance.

But most of the birds once relied on - including the stork - have now vanished, he said.

We last saw them here more than five years ago, said Madanhire.