Bluegrass Wildlife: The sounds of nature’s night can be deafening, scary, and wonderful at the same time

By Howard Whiteman
Murray State University

“WHIP-POOR-WILL, WHIP-POOR-WILL, WHIP-POOR-WILL” was the call coming from the windowsill.

The male whip-poor-will, who is named for his emphatic call, was literally just a few feet from my head, and was so loud that our entire living room seemed to resonate. No female birds inside this house, buddy; go try elsewhere. He’s even kept me up some nights.

The whip-poor-will called by our window for a few nights and has continued to call around the house each evening, one of the few birds that try to attract mates and set up breeding territories at night.

Whip-poor-wills are one of the many creatures that fill the night with sounds (Photo by John Hewlett)

Chuck’s-will-widow is a closely related species in the south that also calls its name at night, although they are a lot rarer. Nighthawks are out around cities and rocky bluffs, not being hawks at all but acting like them from an insect’s perspective, swooping to snag bugs in midair and doing unique diving displays, again at night, to attract mates. Woodcock have ended their breeding for the year, but they also combine unique evening calling and aerial displays in their mating routine.

Owls are always calling at night, with the “Who cooks for you, who cooks for y’all” of the barred owl one of my favorites. Great horned owls, barn owls, and screech owls round out an assemblage of predatory birds attuned for hunting at night, with their big eyes, large facial discs for gathering sound, silent feathers, and impressive talons. It’s tough to be a rabbit or mouse with an owl around at night.

But nighttime doesn’t just belong to birds. Frogs and toads are out in force, and around my house I can hear an amazing diversity of species depending on the time of year. Right now, Fowler’s toads, bullfrogs, gray and green treefrogs, and green frogs are all breaking the silence, in each case males trying to attract mates or set up territories from other males. Some species, like bullfrogs, green frogs, and toads, typically call from the water or the water’s edge, waiting to pounce on any female they can attract. Treefrogs often call above or near water, and sometimes from the trees, even during the day, although the calling definitely picks up at night.

Insects are going crazy at night as well. Cicadas, katydids, crickets, and a variety of other species are using the stillness of the night for the same exact reason that birds and frogs are: to attract mates.

Many of these species call during the day, but at night the sounds are often much more obvious.

There are other night sounds that keep me focused when I am walking through the woods at night, often in the fall when leaving my treestand after an evening hunt or on my way to it in the twilight of early morning. The howl of coyotes is a welcome sound, and even though I know they are harmless to humans, there is something very primordial in their howl that puts me on alert, particularly when they are close by.

Humans have a long history with predators, and I certainly still feel it. Maybe you do too.

When a coyote or owl or other predator finds a rabbit, it unleashes another nighttime sound. Rabbits scream for the same reason you and I do when danger arises—to startle the predator in hopes of getting away, or maybe hoping beyond hope that the scream will attract another predator and in the ensuing fight over the rabbit an escape can occur. It rarely works, but must work often enough for rabbits to keep on screaming. It’s a chilling sound either way, particularly at night.

Even more chilling is when foxes mate. Not calling, but actual sounds of them mating. It sounds even worse than rabbit screams, somehow, like eminent death. Unlike coyote howls, it really makes me pause; it is that bad. It may be tough to forget once you hear it, but it is as natural as all of the other sounds of the night. Thankfully, I’ve only heard it a few times.

When you add the howls and screams to the insects, frogs, and birds, sometimes the nighttime can make me think that I live in in the jungles of South America rather than the eastern U.S. This diversity of sound tells me that even with all of the environmental problems facing us right now, there are still plenty of species out there, lighting up the night with their amazing array of noise.

Howard Whiteman

There is one more group, however, that is also blasting sound every night, although we mere humans cannot hear them. Bats are nighttime hunters as well, and use ultrasonic frequencies to communicate with each other, navigate through forests, and catch insects. Their calls are at a much higher frequency than we can hear, but with specialized “bat detectors” you can see the calls in real time and, because each species has a unique call signature, you can use the calls to identify individual species.

Some bat detectors just plug into an iPhone, and with the right app you can “see” all the bats flying around your house at night. My colleagues and I use them for research purposes, but they are really fun just for learning more about bats and the sounds that they make—even if we cannot hear them. And there are so many bats to “see”: red bats, evening bats, big brown bats, and many other species that occasionally swing by. The detector is pricey, but a lot less than a good pair of binoculars.

The night might be dark, but it is certainly not boring. Some of the sounds of the night, like that darn whip-poor-will, can keep us up at night, while others, like rabbit screams, can startle us during evening walks. Still others are soothing, at least to some, like the rhythmic cadence of cicadas or the gentle bellow of a bullfrog. Whatever the sound, I encourage you to open up your windows when you can, or spend some time on your porch, or even take an evening walk (perhaps with your bat detector), and soak up the sounds of the night.

Dr. Howard Whiteman is the Commonwealth Endowed Chair of Environmental Studies and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Murray State University.

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