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.
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.|