I usually enjoy the animal sounds in my backyard, but this squirrel was getting on my last nerve. I was reading on my back porch enjoying a balmy, fall afternoon. He was sitting on top of the gate arbor twenty feet away squawking at me—or so it seemed.
He was making that peculiar squirrel sound, “chirl, chirl, chirl”, over and over and over.
I try to stay attuned to all of those chirps, twitters, and squawks when creatures talk to each other. It is as though they are speaking in a foreign language. I am sure they mean something. I just don’t understand what it is. Most of the sounds are pleasant and melodic. Some sounds—like that squirrel—can be annoying. But I recently heard an animal sound that was other-worldly.
If I had been walking in the woods in a dense fog, I would have thought this was the musical score of a sci-fi movie and a flying saucer had just landed. But this music was all too real. I was outdoors on an early June evening in Louisville Kentucky and the buzzing, musical sound was the height of the seventeen-year cicada emergence. The noise at times was deafening.
Every seventeen years, billions of cicadas from what is known as Brood X tunnel up from underground to spend their final days trying to attract a mate. The cicadas I was listening to began their lives in 2004, when newly hatched nymphs fell from the trees, burrowed into the dirt, and fed on sap from the rootlets of grasses and trees as they slowly matured. All of that preparation had been leading up to the moment when they surface in droves—up to 1.4 million cicadas per acre—to molt into their adult form, sing their deafening love song, and produce the next generation before dying just a few weeks later.
The sound of an individual cicada sounds like the rapid clicking of an old-fashioned telegraph machine. It is actually just the love song of males trying to attract a mate, but when they all sing together it is said to be the loudest animal sound on the planet.
At the other end of the spectrum is the animal song I heard on a cool overcast afternoon in July 1997. I had just boarded a small boat with a half-dozen other people for a whale-watching cruise. This was not one of those large-scale ocean cruises, because these whales were spending the summer in an estuary at the mouth of Northern Canada’s Churchill River. As our small boat motored away from the dock into Hudson Bay, I was skeptical about seeing whales. The water was calm, but the river was wide at this point and very murky. How we were to find whales, I had no idea, but as it turned out, we did not need to find them. They found us.
About twenty minutes into our cruise, they just appeared around the boat. There was no way to count them because they bobbed up to blow and breathe, then sank back down. I suppose there were ten or fifteen animals—many of them longer than our boat.
When the guide on our excursion lowered a microphone, called a hydrophone, into the water, we heard the high-pitched chirps, squeaks, and squeals of wild beluga whales coming from the small boom box at the back of the boat. It was the chatter of a whale family on an outing, talking to each other as they made their way up the river. They seemed unconcerned over our presence—innocent and vulnerable.
The beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is an Arctic and sub-Arctic cetacean. It has unique characteristics that are adapted to life in the Arctic. These include its all-white color and the absence of a dorsal fin, which allows belugas to swim under the ice. The beluga’s body size is between that of a dolphin and a true whale, with males growing up to eighteen feet long and weighing over three thousand pounds.
Belugas are gregarious and form groups of a dozen-or-so animals, although during the summer, they can gather in the hundreds or even thousands in estuaries and shallow coastal areas. Belugas depend heavily on underwater sound for orientation, feeding, and communication. They use echolocation for movement, to find breathing holes in the ice, and to hunt in dark or turbid waters. In addition to the clicks they use for navigation, these animals communicate using sounds of high-frequency whistles. Their calls can sound like bird songs, earning them the nickname “canaries of the sea.”
There is heavy debate as to whether cetacean vocalizations can constitute a language. A study conducted in 2015 determined that European beluga signals share physical features comparable to “vowels.” These sounds were found to be stable throughout time but varied among different geographical locations. Like most true languages, the further away the populations were from each other, the more varied the sounds were in relation to one another.
Hearing the belugas, cicadas, and squirrels reminded me of Carl Sagan’s 1985 science fiction novel, Contact. It deals with the exciting prospect of human contact with intelligent, extraterrestrial life. It is almost amusing to think about humans trying to communicate with an intelligent, extraterrestrial life-form when we can’t—or won’t—communicate with each other. We are divided by language, by politics, and by, well, bull-headed stubbornness.
We clearly have much to learn about communication. One way I have attempted to improve my own communication skill is to listen more closely to the chirps, caws, and melodies of the animals in my own backyard. But I still don’t know what that squirrel was worried about. I was just sitting there on my porch. Surely he wasn’t worried about me. Finally, I got up to see what the fuss was about. Maybe there was a cat lurking in the shrubbery below the porch. Or maybe a snake was slithering up the crepe myrtle in his direction. But on closer inspection, I still couldn’t see any threat. As I eased in his direction, he turned and scampered down the fence.
I’m not sure but I think he cast a look back at me with a sly smile on his thin, squirrelly lips. I wonder if he won a bet with his friends back up the tree. He got me up, out of my chair, and outside to investigate…nothing. I took a moment to “communicate” what I thought of him and went back in to continue my reading.