You hold your breath and listen with intent ears. It’s prowling out there in the darkness, sifting through the leaves and ground looking for food or maybe … you. Then there’s a pause as silence falls and the rustling of leaves is hushed. Suddenly, a dry rasping hiss and metallic clicking sounds fill the night air, followed by a hoarse, blood-curdling shriek that abruptly cuts off.
The silence returns - at least for a little while.
In the dark of night, lurking in the brush, animals can produce noises that strain human imagination. The sounds may be frightening at first until you learn which animals are creating all the ruckus.
Familiar nocturnal animals (those active at night) can explain most of the noises - opossums, raccoons, armadillos, coyotes, frogs, insects and owls.
Owls in particular have haunting calls and vocalizations and they can display elusive tendencies and behavior. This has led to some great scary folklore.
Often, the only time we humans know owls are around is when we hear their eerie calls floating through the darkness or when they suddenly startle us as they float past on dark, silent wings.
Owl calls run the gamut of creepy sounds. The barred owl call is a deep baritone hoot and it sounds like someone saying “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you alllllll,” with the last note drawn out.
One barred owl in the park sits patiently on a sign near the highway underpass, staring intently, waiting for cliff swallows to make the wrong move in the middle of the night. A quivering, descending wail or whinny best describes the screech owl’s call.
Although its name implies screechy sounds, you won’t hear it from this owl. Perhaps that name would be better applied to the barn owl, whose hoarse shriek cuts off abruptly at the end. The scariness of barn owl calls don’t end there - they also produce a dry rasping hiss, accented by metallic clicking noises.
Some unexpected critters add to the night symphony. The great blue heron, which is active both day and night, creates a series of low-pitched croaks.
Darting under lights chasing insects, the common nighthawk repeats a nasally “peent.” The bullfrog adds a resonant, baritone bellow, while the chorus frog’s mating call sounds similar to running your fingernail down the teeth of a plastic comb.
And then there are bats - while humans can’t hear most of their high-pitched cries, some of us can feel strange vibrations in our eardrums when bats are calling nearby.
Some sounds can be frightening enough to lead you to believe someone is in distress. For example, the territorial call of a grey fox is described as a hoarse scream of anguish and has been compared to the wailing cries of a human baby. Distress calls of the cottontail are high-pitched screams and often attract predators.
So, the next time you’re enjoying an evening outside and you begin to hear strange sounding yips, yelps and howls or other scary noises, you’ll know it’s just a coyote or the hooting of a great-horned owl or maybe an armadillo rustling in the leaves. Understanding what kinds of critters produce those strange nighttime sounds will make what you hear a little less spooky.