Home / Blogs / Top Five Sounds in Nature
July 14, 2021
Natural resource professionals rarely get to write opinion pieces. In fact, our brains are actually wired for the opposite. We are trained to produce technical information that is often the interpretation of research, either designed to advance our understanding of nature or to answer specific scientific questions. This information can then be applied to conservation or resource management in real-world scenarios. But occasionally we are consulted by journalists for popular press articles that convey this technical information to the public as a means of outreach and education. And even in this capacity we often struggle to provide information that is easy to understand for those without scientific backgrounds. This is evident here, as I feel it necessary to provide a rationale for writing a subjective piece. And that’s exactly what I am attempting to do, so I apologize in advance if I provide too much technical terminology.
Like I said, this is a totally subjective piece. I have tried to identify what I consider to be the top five sounds in nature, which was actually harder than it seems. I will attempt to provide justification for my selections, but in reality, they are just the sounds that I enjoy hearing, for various reasons. The natural world is filled with unique and beautiful sounds, but they are often drowned out by the sounds of civilization or simply ignored due to the nature of our fast-paced lives. Birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, and even some reptiles make vocalizations that are discernable to the human ear. Some sound intrinsically beautiful, and others evoke certain feelings that are harder to describe. For me, most of these sounds represent a time or a place in my life that was meaningful, and they evoke a sense of nostalgia for both the past and what is yet to come. I encourage you to listen a little closer to the sounds of nature the next time you’re afield and try to develop your own list of favorites.
Is there any other sound that is more diagnostic of spring? The aptly named spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) is a small species of chorus frog that is widespread throughout the Chesapeake region. Each year in early spring the peepers gather in their scrub-shrub wetlands and serenade us with a deafening chorus of high-pitched calls. Peepers are a sign of intact, healthy wetlands, and (in many regions) are the first frogs to begin their annual mating rituals. We can hear them in the evenings after warm spring days or as we drive past their wetland haunts on a country backroad. Spring peepers were one of the first frogs I learned as a child, and their arrival was always (and still is) a sign that spring has finally sprung after a long, cold winter. While easy to hear, they are often more difficult to see. They have acute senses and will stop calling when they sense predators, so it takes a stealthy approach to find one. I can remember the first spring peeper I ever laid eyes on like it was yesterday. My grandfather and I set out after dark to find a lone male calling from a small wetland along the road at our hunting camp. Despite the rain and cold, we were able to find him after a significant amount of effort. It is a memory that I will long cherish and still think of each spring as the peepers begin their annual serenade.
A spring peeper clings to the author’s cabin porch railing on a warm spring night (Photo Jim Kauffman).
If you have ever hunted for gobblers in the spring, I don’t have to explain why this sound is so incredible. The wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) is our largest upland ground bird and is common and widespread throughout the Chesapeake watershed. Each spring, males ‘gobble’ profusely to attract and breed with females. The nickname ‘thunderchicken’ is well-deserved, as the gobbles reverberate through the woods and mountains on early spring mornings. Another symbol of spring, turkeys are gobbling just as our eastern woodlands are returning to life. Wildflowers are blooming, ferns are popping up, warblers are returning, and morels are bursting from the soil. It’s a time of year I always look forward to, not only for the return of spring but for the chance to hunt these wily birds. There’s just something incredible about a gobbler sounding off from his roost in the wee hours of the morning, and it’s hard to explain to someone who has not experienced it. The perfect spring day for me might be turkey hunting in the morning (followed by an afternoon nap) and an evening of trout fishing.
A male wild turkey ‘struts’ in an attempt to impress females during the spring breeding season. (Photo by ebird.org).
This sound could easily be number one. There truly are few sounds in nature like that of a bull elk in rut. We are blessed with a wild population of close to 1300 elk (Cervus canadensis) in the mountains of northcentral Pennsylvania. In September of each year, elk begin their breeding season or ‘rut,’ with males fighting for dominance and breeding rights. During this time the bulls ‘bugle’ to announce their presence and attract mates. It’s such a unique sound. It starts as a deep guttural sound that transitions to a high-pitched whistle or scream. It is absolutely something that everyone must experience in-person. I grew up with a hunting camp in the northcentral region, just outside the primary elk range. We would occasionally take trips to elk country, but rarely saw elk or heard them bugle during the September rut. In 2017, my dad drew a cow elk tag and we finally had the opportunity to hunt elk in Pennsylvania. Since that time I have guided other hunters during Pennsylvania’s elk hunting seasons, gaining an intimate knowledge of elk and the elk range. Hunting bulls during the September rut is one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had. Summer is transitioning to fall, fog hangs low in the valleys, and elk bugles resonate between the mountains. Being up close and personal with bugling bulls in the woods is truly a spectacular experience. I encourage you to take a trip to Pennsylvania’s elk country this fall and experience it for yourself.
A bull elk bugles to advertise his presence in Clinton County, Pennsylvania (Photo by Jim Kauffman).
This is truly a nostalgic choice for me. I spent many spring nights at our family cabin listening to the never-ending chorus of whippoorwills singing throughout the night. For me their song evokes a feeling of peace, family, and forest. I have spent many spring nights in the Pennsylvania forests falling asleep to the seemingly never-ending chorus of “whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will,” dreaming of the gobblers and trout I would pursue the next morning. The whippoorwill (Antrostomus vociferous) is a nocturnal, insectivorous bird that is a member of the nightjar or goatsucker family. Whippoorwills spend the winter in the southeastern United States, Mexico, and Central America. When spring arrives, they migrate north to our eastern forests to mate and raise their young. They are completely nocturnal, feeding on insects they capture in flight. They have large, gaping mouths and oversized eyes, both adaptations that allow them to capture nocturnal flying insects. Their unique morphology and ecology is certainly fascinating, but it is their even more unique song that puts them at number two on my list.
An eastern whippoorwill perches on a tree branch in the eastern deciduous forest (Photo by birdsoftheworld.org).
This might be a surprising choice for number one, but for me it was an easy one. Katydids signal the end of summer and a sure sign that fall is on its way. Fall is probably my favorite season, as it brings cooler temperatures, fall foliage, and hunting seasons. Katydids begin their annual serenade in late summer, and drone on throughout early fall. They are nocturnal, and sing throughout the night from their perches within the deciduous forest canopy. On hot summer nights their repetitive electronic buzz is often fast-paced, but as cooler temperatures set in their repetitions begin to slow. A common theme throughout this list is the nostalgia associated with spending time at my family cabins during my childhood, and associating those pleasant memories with the sounds of nature. And the song of the katydids are no exception. I still spend most nights in late summer listening to the chorus of katydids, sitting around the campfire or laying in my bunk at hunting camp thinking of fall. A sign of contiguous woodlands, katydids also symbolize the vast forests that once (and in some areas still do) cover much of the Chesapeake region. It is now mid-July, so it won’t be long before they once again begin their annual midnight song, and I am patiently awaiting their arrival.
A katydid perches on a leaf within the deciduous forest canopy (Photo by songsofinsects.com).
Pennsylvania Forests Projects Coordinator
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