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A little night animal music

By Scott Shalaway

At 5 a.m. on May 19, I awoke abruptly to a loud sound just outside the bedroom door. As the cobwebs cleared my mind, I realized I was hearing a whippoorwill. Having heard whippoorwills only five times over the last 25 years, I thought perhaps I had set my bird alarm clock to wake me with a whip song. But no, this was the real thing. It sang for about a minute and then it was gone.

The sound was so loud, I'm sure the bird was perched on the deck railing just outside the door. By the time I got up, sneaked over to the door and flipped on the deck light, Mr. Whippoorwill was gone.

Almost three weeks later, on June 6, again at 5 a.m., my wife woke me to tell me there was a light on in the car parked in the driveway. I stepped outside to close the car door that was almost certainly keeping the dome light illuminated.

Mission accomplished, I walked back to the house, and heard a whippoorwill calling in the distance. And about a minute later a second whip called from across the road. Maybe this year I've got whippoorwills nesting in the woods.

No matter where you live, night sounds abound. If it's not whippoorwills, it might be owls. Eastern screech owls have two primary songs: a quavering tremolo and an eerie whinny. Great horned owls, the quintessential hoot owl, bellow a series of five to seven hoots. Some describe the cadence as. "Don't kill owls, save owls." And barred owls, doing their best to speak English, ask in hoot-speak, "Who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all?"

Even in urban residential areas, night sounds can entertain or annoy. Common nighthawks, a cousin to the whippoorwill, patrol evening skies for flying insects. Watch for them near the lights at nighttime sporting events. Listen for a nasal woodcock-like "peent" as they bank and turn. By day, they often nest on flat graveled roofs.

In backyards with dense shrubbery, male northern mockingbirds sometimes sing all night long in hopes of attracting or keeping a mate. Some individual mockingbirds sing more than a thousand different phrases. The lesson seems to be that females assess male quality by the extent of a male's vocal repertoire. The lesson for mockingbirds' human neighbors is that they are difficult to ignore when sleep is required.

In more rural areas another songbird often sings at night. The yellow-breasted chat is the largest warbler, and males sing a wide variety of unmusical sounds. They hoot, honk, buzz, whistle and chortle. During the day chats often sing in flight, with legs dangling awkwardly beneath a chunky body. At night they seem to sing patiently from a favorite stationary perch. If you live near an old field adjacent to a woodlot, listen for the odd sounds of a chat, day or night.

In wilder areas deer snort, coyotes yip and raccoons scream. In a few more weeks insects will add to the nocturnal din. The sounds of katydids and snowy tree crickets dominate warm, dark summer nights.

Katydids are large green grasshoppers. They often come to porch lights. Their green textured outer wings look like leaves, near perfect cryptic coloration.

The best way to recognize a katydid at night is by ear. Males sing from early evening well into the night. The song is harsh, burry, and sounds something like "Ch-ch" or "Ch-ch-ch" or "ch-ch-ch-ch." The phrases are repeated about once a second, and the rhythm suggests the insect's name: Ka-ty, ka-ty-did or kay-ty-did-did.

Snowy tree crickets are sometimes called the "thermometer cricket" -- count the number of chirps in 13 seconds, add 40 and you have a rough estimate of the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. Though not precise, these estimates are based on the observation that snowy tree crickets sing faster when temperatures are higher.

By late summer, night-bird voices fade, and insects rule the airwaves.

***

To hear any of the bird sounds I've mentioned this week, visit www.allaboutbirds.org/guide and type a species name in the search box.

Contact Shalaway via email at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.


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