Masked Biologist: Mysterious Sounds In The Dark

Apr 27, 2020

An unfamiliar sound can be frightening; an unknown sound when you are in the dark woods can be terrifying. In this week’s Wildlife Matters the Masked Biologist shares some experiences and explains why sound identification can be challenging.

Recently I have had a handful of requests, both in my day job and as the Masked Biologist, to help identify sounds that have been recorded on smartphone video. This is an extremely challenging task. I wasn’t there when you recorded it, and factors like location, time of day or night, and wind speed and direction can have a profound impact on what you are hearing. When I am hearing it, I am listening to a static recording. I can listen to it over and over, with headphones on, but it will not be exactly the same as what you heard. The other factor I cannot replicate is state of mind.

I remember the first time I went out turkey hunting. I was an adult, a married man in my late twenties, and a colleague agreed to take me out and try to get my first turkey on a large farm in Kansas. We arrived in the dark, and once we were geared up, he gave a loud owl hoot. We heard some turkeys gobble off in the distance, and lickety-split, he was gone. He dashed quietly off in the direction of the gobbles, disappearing in the darkness. I scrambled after him, trying to keep up. Crawling over downed trees, squeezing through fences, we finally came to the edge of a pasture, but I wouldn’t know that until dawn finally broke later. Right now, I was peering into the darkness. And there was gobbling. Thunderous gobbling, seeming to come from all around me, up in the air, some nearer than others but all clearly audible. I was panting from the mad dash, my heart pounding in my ears. I leaned over to my friend and said “I hate to admit it, but I am kind of freaked out right now!” He smiled and told me he understood. As daylight crept in, and shadowy shapes turned to familiar cottonwood and oak trees, the turkeys appeared in the pasture in front of me. We had a great hunt, and I bagged a nice tom. But I have never forgotten just how terrified I felt when I could hear and feel those turkey gobbles, for the first time, in the wild.

Being outside in the dark makes us edgy. It’s okay, that’s an instinct that kept our ancestors alive so we could be here today, and it has been handed down in our genetic code. Predators and enemies have the edge in the dark, and our ancestors knew it. We instinctively sleep where we can face the door. We naturally sleep worse when staying in a strange place for the first time. The darkness has never been our safest natural condition. And when we are on edge, the adrenaline is flowing, and we hear a noise, our “fight or flight” instinct kicks in and tells the brain to sit in the passenger’s seat. Like with the turkeys, my brain knew I was safe, holding a gun, on a farm, with my mentor at arm’s reach, listening to turkeys gobble in trees. But my instincts were telling me: THIS IS BAD AND WE ARE GOING TO DIE.

So when I tell people that the sound they recorded sounds like a territorial bobcat squabble, or the wail of a suffering deer, the human-like shriek of a red fox, or the startling begging call of a juvenile owl, I am often told I must be wrong, because the sound was much scarier than that. Without a picture, or tracks, or something quantifiable, it is left to what I can objectively hear and what I think it might or might not be. The scariest noises I have heard while out in the Northwoods at night? Well, I heard a new strange noise that I eventually identified as a male porcupine mating call. Bobcat fights and raccoon fights will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. And, I went out on a wolf howling outing one time that made me feel like the wolf, which was a half mile away, would be able to get to me before I made it back to my vehicle. But the scariest sound I have ever heard was the sound of silence. I was lost in the woods after sunset during duck season, my phone was dead, and my lab and I were trying to head toward the sound of the highway. My dog kept hearing something in the darkness around us, but it was very quiet. I heard rustling in the leaves, and then I heard a twig snap. We had at least two wolves, probably just curious, accompanying us. They walked when we walked, and they stopped when we stopped. I only stopped one more time, and that was to re-load my shotgun. I didn’t have to tell my dog to heel, she was right at my side. We were very relieved when we finally hit a snowmobile trail and followed it to the highway. Sometimes it’s not the sounds you hear, but the sounds you don’t, that should cause you to be on alert.