Friday, February 18, 2011

Crying out loud

Have you ever lain awake in the night listening to the terrible shrieks, yowls and screams of something unknown?

Inevitably it happens when you're out camping, and all that separates you and the night is a thin smear of nylon.

Of course you know it's only some animal. Right?

I mean, there's no way it's a banshee, a victim of torture or that second-grade teacher you knew was a witch.
And while you're rationally thinking this, your body is preparing for the worst. Your palms grow sweaty, your breathing quickens and you leap neurotically at the smallest noise. Meanwhile your mind, consciously refusing houseroom to thoughts of ghouls, ghosts and gremlins, merrily conjures images of maimed animals; innocent creatures twisting in the agony of trap or snare, desperately gnawing at their own mangled legs.

What's prompted me to reminisce about such fun experiences?
Well I recently came across an entertaining article ('5 lovable animals you didn't know are secretly terrifying') and one of the critters it lists is the red fox. In an amusing transcript, the article describes - with quite uncanny accuracy - my own first reaction to red fox calls (although I hasten to add I wasn't stoned at the time). If you're not familiar with the dreadful noises a red fox can make, there's video clip in the article. But be warned: humans aren't alone in responding badly. An innocent click on the play button launched a large husky into my lap as she lunged head first into my computer screen, and the cats' fur took more than an hour to resume normal orientation.

Black-backed jackals are up there with the best when it comes to weird calls. Listen to them here (by clicking the website's speaker icon) if you doubt me.
Photo by Johann du Preez.

Of course animal calls are usually only harrowing because you don't know who's doing the shrieking. And like a good crime novel, it's always the most unlikely suspect. A top contender for the 'shock-value' award must surely be the hyrax (or dassie). These innocuous little creatures look like those fabric-covered brick doorstops (complete with button eyes and nose) that kids make at school in the lead up to Father's Day. Rock hyraxes have no appreciable legs, and spend most of their time sitting about in clusters atop boulders, soaking up the sun. Sometimes they'll scamper down the rocks to munch grass or totter about - with endearing ineptitude – in the branches, snacking on leaves. A colony hangs out on the koppies at my study site, and although I see them daily, nary a squeak do they make. But on bright moonlit nights, when you're least expecting it, male hyraxes let rip. Their shocking, maniacal cries (please listen to one here) terrify rivals and humans alike. Tree hyraxes have gone even further to perfect their cover, secreting themselves away by day in tree hollows so they can creep out at night and horrify unsuspecting bystanders.

A rock hyrax (Procavia capensis) trying to look innocent although clearly it's just mugged a picnicker. Hyraxes have changed little during the last 45 million years, apart from varying in size – one species grew lion-sized (urrgh!).
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

But my favourite alarming call comes from the Kalahari Desert. I worked for many years on the Kalahari Meerkat Project, and each year a new crop of volunteer field assistants arrived. They were mostly young graduates from urban UK, and, initially, they tended to be a bit unsettled by the isolation and wide, desolate landscapes. Now you need to understand that these young people hadn't spent their childhood playing cowboys and Indians; this was the generation that duelled with light sabres, rescued Princess Leia and verbs at the end of their sentences put, hmmm. Now as it happens, the Sand People in Star Wars (those scary hooded entities that ambush Luke Skywalker in the desert of his home planet) communicated with eerie calls virtually indistinguishable from the braying of mules (used for transport by our farm workers). So for me at least, it was a wonderful moment when - trekking with a new volunteer across the dunes in the middle of nowhere - the brays of the Sand People reverberated around us. I loved the look of utter shock and consternation as - just for one moment - they were plunged within their childhood fantasies.

I've heard that the bugling calls of wapiti (North American elk) are very similar to the cries of the Nazgul in the Lord of the Rings movies, so perhaps a whole new generation will experience this same heart-stopping magic. I wonder where the calls of the Dementors in Harry Potter came from...

Impala aglow. This antelope's grunts and roars (hear them here) routinely send my new field assistants scuttling for home.
Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

But the most alarming animal noise that I've ever experienced was made by creatures that potter around my garden nightly. And no, it's not the hippos.

It happened one night a couple of years ago. I was just getting ready for bed when the roaring growl of heavy machinery began emanating from my front garden. Above the steady roar of engines was a very loud pulsing whirr that had that ululating, come-and-go quality of an ambulance siren. The combined noise was so deafening that the student staying here at the time was convinced a helicopter had landed in the garden. To me, it sounded exactly like a UFO (or what a special effects team would conjure up as a scary, unearthly spaceship sound). Since my garden seemed to be free of luridly flashing green light, helicopters or earth-moving equipment, I decided I'd better go out and find out what was happening. Admittedly I did feel a touch of apprehension but, hang it, if a UFO was landing on my doorstep I wanted to know about it.

What I found couldn't have surprised me more, even if it had been a delegation of little green aliens.

Clumped around my compost heap were three highly agitated porcupines and one small honey badger. The honey badger (a species renowned for its 'nothing's too fearsome' approach to life) had clearly been trying it on, and the porcupines were rallying in defence. Now, when my dogs harass the porcupines (a nightly occurrence), the creatures respond by stamping their hind feet (like petulant children), coughing out a growl, and rattling their spines. Their tail quills are hollow so when the porcupine shivers its tail (as a horse shivers its skin to dislodge a fly) they do make quite a dramatic clashing sound (which you can hear here). But I'd no idea that, when seriously pressed, porcupines combined their cacophony of noises into such an amazing and other-worldly din.

If you know of a potential contender for 'Most Alarming Animal Noise', please, please nominate it in a comment.

Never underestimate a rodent. One of the Cape, or southern African, porcupines (Hystrix africaeaustralis) that visits my garden nightly.


  1. Dear Lynda,
    would you accept the nomination of earpiercing begging calls from meerkat pups?

    I would like to nominate the Lilac Breasted Roller, though. This was one of my utterly shocking moments. The little guy was so close that I almost got a heart attack in the middle of a harmless day.

    Apart from this, the only scaring Kalahari noise that I heard at night came from the other rondavels… the snoring team mates. As I’m living in relatively isolation here in my homeland too, really close to the nature, I’m very familiar to the foxes cry. Isn’t it heart breaking?!

    Fantastic entry, Lynda, as always,
    and so appreciated!!!

  2. Thank you for such an entertaining and enlightening post on such a terrifying topic.

    I have a nominee for the most alarming animal noise, although it's not alarming in the sense of "heartstopping" so much as "startling, profoundly disturbing, and potentially traumatic": it is the sex moan of the Aldabra tortoise, which I had the (mis)fortune of hearing this past summer at the National Zoo in DC--while witnessing the actual sex act, which would have been interesting rather than emotionally scarring had it not been accompanied by such drawn-out, breathy groans. (For those of strong constitution, you can read about the event here: --but I wouldn't recommend it.)

  3. Probably not a contender, but as a 9 year old camping in a Land Rover in the Congo I was woken up by a terrible noise that my parents told me where cows and not to worry!!! They admitted to me after that it was lions wandering around the vehicle but they did not want to frighten me!!! Diane

  4. OK, here are my nominations - both heard whilst in the jungle in South Amercia - the stinky bird (at times, alarmingly like two jahuars fighting) and the howler monkeys, that sound like a cross between a freight train and a hurricane every morning at 5am. Makes a good alarm clock, once you know what it is and get used to it.
    Stinky bird (aka hoatzin) and howler monkey -

    Howler monkey -

    I happen to have done a post about both of them a hwile ago

  5. Another wonderful post. I burst out laughing at the hyrax--funny when you know what it is, and funny to imagine the alarm it would cause if you didn't.

    North American porcupines make sweet, sad, nasal vocalizations. Elks bugle regally. The scariest one ever for me was a screaming raccoon who in the middle of the night fell into an oil-drum trash-can a few feet away from our tent at a campsite. Raccoons make amazing sounds--cat/human baby/jaguar.

    For late-night fright, territorial Barred Owls are impressive too. Hair-raising screams.

  6. What a fun post and what fun comments to read! =) Who knew an impala could sound like some giant thing that wants to eat you!

    One of my favorite calls is this cicada which sounds like a screaming woman:

    Too cool! =) FABULOUS post. Thanks, as ever. =)

  7. Lil_Earthwoman,
    No, I don’t reckon the begging calls of meerkat pups qualify as alarming. I certainly find them stressful (as, I suspect, do adult meerkats), but that’s because they bring back memories of rushing about vainly trying to record who’s feeding whom. In contrast, dwarf mongoose pups give pleasant little bird-like squeaks.
    I fully appreciate the roller experience. I think they intentionally creep up behind you before giving that dreadful clacking yark.

    I appreciated your X-rated tortoise photos (especially the one where he’s got his feet off the ground) although I did worry about his little lady love getting squished...
    The most dreadful mating noises I know of are those of koalas. The females scream blue murder and the males (who have a barbed penis to help things along) grunt and bellow with macho gusto. If you’re game you can witness it for yourself:
    At the conference I attended last year there was a talk on the mating behaviour of Madagascan fossa (the females have special ‘mating trees’ where they sit about night after night, calling in the males), which included play backs of their calls. Yikes! The female’s come-hither wails and screams were OK, but the heartfelt moans and grunts of the male were so evocative that there wasn’t a single person in the auditorium not squirming with embarrassment!

    Oh those pesky roaring cows! It’s enough to put a kid off farmyard animals for life.

    Don’t Bug Me,
    I’d love to see (and hear) a hoatzin; it’s a species that captured my interest as a child (the dinosaur claws). I’m very reassured that their voices are as weird as the rest of them.
    Chorusing primates are seriously impressive. I stood under the tree of a gibbon family doing its thing in a Malaysian rainforest – wow!

    I listened to some raccoon recordings ( and am most impressed by their vocabulary. Enhanced by oil-drum amplification, it must have created a gem of a camping trip.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Your cicada is very impressive; thank goodness it doesn't live around here!

  8. It's been a long time since I visited. I have been focussing on writing a novel and it is very demanding.
    One of the most blood curdling cries I have ever heard was one of the bushbaby family. I am not sure which one it is, but the first time I heard it, it was terrifying. When you realsie what it is and how small it is it is not a big deal.
    Then of course there is the sound of the male lion doing his grunting thing. If you happen to be on foot, in the Zambezi Valley, with only jessie bush around you it can be very scary. That is when you get wings on your feet and start jogging - like you I see no point in jogging - I only jog for self presevation.


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