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