You’re laying in bed, sound asleep, or counting leaping sheep as you drift off into dreams. And then, a scream. Or perhaps a screech. Or a guttural moan. Or a wail from beyond the window.
Was it an owl? Or a raccoon? Or perhaps some other unknown animal?
Many creatures make mysterious noises in the night, but in darkness it can be hard to tell just which species made that strange sound that you hear.
Here are seven potential suspects to narrow your search; critters that are could be in your backyard, or your favorite campsite, adding their sounds to the night’s chorus. See if you recognize their calls, and write in to tell us what other weird noises you’ve heard in nature.
As I remember, the late-night call with my new-to-Maryland neighbor went something like this: “Do you hear a woman screaming?” she sounded breathless and a little frantic. “A woman’s being stabbed in our woods! I’m calling the police!”
“No,” I said. “That’s a red fox. You’re hearing the vixen’s scream.”
Silence. The agonized scream came again. Clearly audible through the phone and from the woods between our yards. “That’s a fox? That’s not a fox! Are you sure that’s a fox?”
I was sure. I ended up sending her a link to a YouTube video of the scream to convince her to come out of the room where she’d locked herself in with her kindergartner. Which, I assured her, locking herself in a room, and calling the police was a completely understandable and sensible reaction to one’s first encounter with red fox screams shattering the night.
In fact, it’s so sensible that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources regularly posts stories on Facebook assuring people that the screams, cries and shrieks they hear are red foxes, not people being assaulted in their backyards.
Read more about red foxes and their wily ways. They’re now one of the most wildly distributed carnivores on Earth. (CCB)
Many owls hoot in the night, but not the barn owl. Oh no.
Barn owls utter a rasping, harsh scream that sounds like it’s straight out of a low-budget horror movie. The sound is typically made by the male, calling while in flight. Birds of both sexes utter a variety of other creepy hissing sounds when disturbed on their nests, or when young are begging for food from their parents.
Barn owls are found across nearly all of the lower-48 states. They prefer open, grassy country, where they hunt for rodents at night and roost in trees or old buildings, like barns, during the day. They’re usually sighted flying low across roads at night.
Many other owls in the Tyto genus make similarly unsettling noises. Australia’s greater and lesser sooty owls make a noise called the “bomb whistle,” because it sounds like the bomb-dropping sound from your kid’s morning cartoons. (JEH)
Most people don’t think of raccoons as particularly vocal animals. They don’t call out across the night like many animals on this list. But they actually make an array of sounds, particularly when agitated or alarmed. Sometimes, you’re the one who inadvertently alarms them, resulting in a shriek that has been likened to a high-pitched pig squeal.
This is not a pleasant sound, and more than once I’ve been scared out of my skin when I’ve surprised a raccoon during an evening walk or fishing trip.
But that twittering shriek is nothing compared to the sound of a full-on raccoon fight. Territorial males occasionally engage in battles that include heavy breathing, grunting and the kinds of screams you hear in horror-movie torture scenes.
I recall one summer evening when sounds of a low, rolling growl sounded outside my bedroom window. Shortly thereafter, the lights in every house in the neighborhood were turned on as a very large raccoon snarled, growled and screamed as it savagely mauled a much smaller raccoon, leaving it lying paralyzed in a neighbor’s yard.
Some animal sounds give you the creeps. Fighting raccoons ruin your evening. (MM)
If you hear a startling scream in the swamp at night, chances are it’s a limpkin. At least, we hope it’s a limpkin.
These uncommon wetland birds are found in Florida and parts of Central and South America. They look like a cross between a crane and an ibis, with white-speckled brown plumage and a long, curving yellowish bill which they use to prise apple snails from their shells.
Male limpkins are well known for producing a repetitive, high-pitched wail or scream that sounds remarkably human-like when it wakes you up in the dead of night. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, male limpkins have long, looping windpipes that allow them to produce these sounds, which are used to help the bird mark their territory.
The female sometimes responds with a softer groaning call, so together they make a rather disturbing duet. Individuals of both sex will also make a staccato rattleing noise. (JEH)
Or feral hogs, as we call them in the parts of Florida and Georgia where I grew up. Estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture put the number of wild hogs in the U.S. at around 6 million animals across 35 states. And growing. Only Texas has more feral hogs than Florida, but Florida’s population is believed to be, well, the oldest. The first pigs known to arrive in America came with Hernando de Soto in the 16th century. They’ve been here ever since.
They’re a huge problem and the U.S.D.A. calculates the damage they cause amounts to about $2.5 billion every year. Even one or two pigs squealing in the night is startling. But when they gather in groups, called sounders, the cacophony of squeals, grunts and growls can sound like a banshee apocalypse. If you don’t know what you’re hearing, it can be extremely unnerving.
On his first camping trip to a state park in Florida, my then 3-year-old son was sleeping peacefully until the feral hogs started to gather. This is the kid who was famous for sleeping through anything. But it didn’t take long before he sat bolt upright in his sleeping bag, clutched his stuffed bear, and whispered, “What’s out there?
Pigs, I told him. Really noisy pigs. He nodded and spent the rest of the night in my sleeping bag. The next day I took him to find the wallows where the pigs had been, and the ground was torn and churned like there had been some kind of battle.
Indian Peafowl (aka Peacock)
I never expected to add a peacock to my birding Yard List. But that’s exactly what happened three years ago, when I moved into a semi-rural neighborhood a few hours north of Brisbane. Unpacking box after box, I looked out the window to see a resplendent male peacock strutting down the road, its tail flouncing along the pavement. Every few steps, he’d let out an unmistakable honk.
But that wasn’t the only noise that our Honkeytonk (as we nicknamed him) made. Months later, when the breeding season rolled around, we awoke in the night to a high-pitched, repeating scream. Honkeytonk, it seemed, was in search of a mate. And he kept up his screaming for several months until our neighbors had him relocated to a farm, where he could live with the company several peacock friends.
Feral peacocks are more common than you might think. In addition to their native range in India, feral populations occur throughout North America, South Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Despite their lovely appearance, feral peacocks are often quite a nuisance to people, who often object to both their noise and their very large droppings.
The city of Los Angeles made headlines last year for their attempts to curb the local peacock population, with one resident notably describing the birds’ call as “ sound[ing] like babies being tortured through a microphone, a very large microphone.” (JEH)
I love to step outside on a spring evening and the howl of coyotes. Judging from the posts I see on neighborhood apps, many are much less enamored. They get freaked out by what they consider hordes of coyotes descending upon their backyards.
Coyotes are now widespread in North America and have made themselves at home in the suburbs. That means a lot of people hear the howls, yips and barks, particularly during the mating season between January and March. At this time of year, pairs establish territories, and they howl to announce that. other nearby pairs may then respond, announcing their own territories. At such times, it can sound like a cascade of howls across the landscape.
It sounds, to human ears, like there are many more coyotes than there actually are, leading distressed social media users to proclaim neighborhoods are “overrun” with coyotes. Read more about coyote howling. (MM)