Mysterious Voices of the Night

In the world of nature sounds, mysteries abound, especially when it comes to weird and puzzling voices of the night …

photo of a full moon against a cloudy sky

Not long ago a woman by the name of Gail Canterbury heard a strange squealing sound late one evening in her backyard near Cortland, New York. Her husband Don made a recording with the video camera in his cell phone. He then extracted an mp3 audio file and sent it to a friend who knew a lot about night sounds. Here is the recording:

Mysterious night sound recorded by Gail and Don Canterbury near Cortland, New York in early August, 2012. Extracted from a cell phone video clip.

The friend … Chris Tessaglia-Hymes (who works at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology) was unable to identify the squeals, so he sent the recording to a number of his friends, including me. None of us knew for certain the source of the sound. Some thought porcupine or raccoon, others gray or red fox. My reaction was “raccoon until proven otherwise” because raccoons are so common and they do make squealing and whimpering sounds. But to tell the truth, I did not recognize the squeals, even though they seemed vaguely familiar.

Luckily, the recording kept circulating and then finally, in early November, someone identified it through comparison with a recording by Wil Hershberger that is in the Cornell Lab’s sound collection. You know Wil … he’s a contributor to this blog! Dang-it, we should have sent the mystery recording to him – surely he would have identified it. Right? Here is Wil’s recording:

Squealing calls and bill snaps of upset ?????? near their nest; elicited by the recordist imitating another of their calls. Recorded 12 July 1998 at 5am at Sugarloaf Mountain Natural Area near Clarksburg, Maryland. © Wil Hershberger.

I love it when mysteries are solved! When I first heard Gail’s recording, I sensed that I had heard the call before, but I just couldn’t remember where. Well, it turns out that Wil’s recording is part of our Music of Nature sound collection, and it is featured in our BirdTunes App for the iPhone and iPad. In other words, the answer was right under my nose, but I just didn’t make the connection.

So what is this mystery animal anyway? Wil’s recording contains a clue. Hear those bill snaps? Well, that tells you it’s a bird. But what bird squeals in the dark? How about an owl of some kind … hey, maybe you guessed it: Eastern Screech-Owl! Yes, these are upset calls of screech-owls, probably given near their nest. Such squeals and bill snaps are generally elicited by some kind of disturbance, maybe an approaching human or other predator, or else neighboring screech-owls coming too close.

The moral of the story: even so-called “experts” can easily be stumped. I personally vouch for this because I’ve been accused of being an expert and I’ve been stumped a number of times in recent years, in spite of wandering around in the dark quite a bit more than the average person.


Mysterious voices of the night abound. Some are made by birds, mammals, frogs, or insects. But do beware … others are made by goblins, ghouls and ghosts … and may the good lord help those foolish souls who attempt to search them out, especially in a graveyard at midnight under the full moon, when the rest of us are fast asleep in the safety of our homes …

Growls and howls of a Ghoul, given just before chowing down on unsuspecting human prey. Take my hard-earned advice: “Don’t visit graveyards after dark!”

photo of graveyard at night with full moon*click photo to enlarge in lightbox.


  1. I have a recording I’d like to share of a rather disturbing noise I hear coming from the woods every single night. It sounds like a mix of an elephant trumpeting, a woman screaming in pain, and a piglet screaming in pain 🙁 I think if I find out what is making that noise, I’d have some peace-of-mind.

  2. Hi Lang! Long time no see, it seems, or should I say long time no comments for me. Since you typed this blog, I made my own email account. The one before was my mom’s. I’m looking forward to your next blog.

    • Hi there Zack! I’ve been extremely busy re-designing for the sale of premium pure nature soundscapes as digital downloads. We should launch in about 3-4 weeks time. That’s why I haven’t been doing blog posts … right now my whole effort is to get the new site up-and-running. If you’re on our mailing list, you’ll be notified if the launch via our newsletter. Once that happens, I’ll hopefully find time to get back to the blogging!

  3. You really shouldn’t feed wild ghouls you know, no matter hungry they appear. They will become dependent on your handouts and lose their natural caution, leading to even more conflicts between ghouls and humans.

    Another negative side effect of this habit could be a growing shortage of good friends.

  4. There’s a current problem with my website My webspace quota is already full, which means I can’t put pictures on the website. Because of this, I haven’t edited it at all lately.

  5. I got an email from you probably three weeks ago when you were still in Australia, about how much you appreciate my comments.

  6. Zack:

    Yes, as mentioned in my post, Wil’s recording is also in the Cornell Lab’s collection. So it’s not surprising that they feature it in All About Birds.

    My Ghoul recording was difficult to get. I had to feed him several good friends before he agreed to be recorded. Then he tried to eat me, but I’m a fast runner, hence I’m still here to tell the tale.

  7. I had just heard recordings that sounded exactly like this on That recording you made of the ghoul is so funny, but it’s a good recording! Keep up the work on posting blogs Lang!

    I once heard a mysterious owl-like sound in broad daylight, which I’m guessing was a distant Barred Owl. It sounded like “HOOOOOOOoooooo!”

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