Saturday, April 19, 2014

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for .... SCIENCE?

The quest for knowledge in nature and science is always taking me beyond the comfortable, passed the limits of the familiar, and well into territory that can at times be downright scary!

 At the cabin (which sits adjacent to Burr Oak State Park), I make a habit of sleeping with the windows open all year.  My bed is positioned directly beside a window so that I can listen to and watch wildlife throughout the night.  And when I can help it, I won’t even run a fan because I do not want any white noise interfering with my listening.   I adjust temperatures with blankets - electric blanket in winter, and lightweight sheet in summer --- simple, eh? 

Last Sunday morning, my eyes flew wide open when I heard a scream outside my window.  A terrible scream - the stuff that fills your nightmares and graces Hollywood screens.  Long, drawn-out, like a lonesome wail.  Not a forced scream of terror, but a haunting scream of sorrow.  The time was 5:37am, and the April sky was still completely black.  The scream repeated and continued at least half a dozen times more.  Phil and I both went out on the screened porch, which is cantilevered over the side of the hill, high from the ground and safely out of reach of wailing creatures!  We listened to the scream, but had no answers.

The next night (Monday), I heard the scream again.  This time it was farther away and I only heard it once.  Frustration began to set in.  “What is it???!!!!”  I asked myself over and over.  What could it be?  I spent a sleepless night, hearing the sound in my subconscious over and over, wondering its source.  A rabbit’s agonizingly slow death?  A coyote hunting?  A black bear summoning a cub? The scream of a barn owl (which I admit, the thought gave me a thrill, but I highly doubted the possibility)? How about raccoons… they are noisy?  Nah!  I knew that none of my ideas were very plausible.  But I couldn’t place the sound!  Finally, I settled on Sasquatch… more in earnest than in jest.  Seriously. 

So, I went back to Nelsonville and put my week of work in, all the while, moderately distracted by “the scream”.  By this time, I’d spent countless hours on the internet and had had numerous conversations with my Dad (who loves this stuff just as much as I!) 

About mid-week, I started to zero in on a strong possibility.  Red fox!  I had listened to several sound clips and youtube videos that sounded almost identical to my “memory”, but therein lies the problem.  My MEMORY.  No one (other than Phil) had heard the sound.  I was going on a memory that was tainted by listening to hundreds of other sound clips over the past several days.  By this time, I was doubting my own reliability and validity.  The red fox seemed to fit and we have CONFIRMED red fox sightings on our property (I even have a photo from last year!), but I would need to hear it again.

Last night (Friday night), I lay in my cabin bed, wondering if I would hear the scream again.  After all, four days had passed and the creature had surely moved on?  I listened to a pair of barred owls call back and forth down in the valley.  The owls were far away, but my trained ears didn’t miss a hoot.  I could hear three separate spring peepers and a possible leopard frog.  I also heard Canada geese overhead throughout the night.  But alas, sleep finally overcame me and I fell asleep without hearing “the scream”.  I don’t know when I finally fell asleep because I refuse to keep a clock in my cabin bedroom.  (I check my phone when I MUST know the time, but other than that, I put it face down and out of sight). 

Somewhere, sometime in the middle of deep sleep (not REM, not dreaming, not half-asleep, but deep and hard-to-wake-from sleep) I heard “the scream”.  I sat straight up as I knew it was a “now or never” moment.  But I was tired, dizzy, and confused.  It took several minutes for me to understand what was happening and get my senses in order enough to grab my phone.  It was 3:27am. 

I jumped out of bed, knowing that I must hurry, and threw on the clothes that I had staged by my bed the night before in hopes of this very situation.  I grabbed my extra bright flashlight (that we lovingly refer to as the “moth light”), set my phone to "video record", and headed outside.   As soon as I opened the door, I could hear the screaming in the direction of Burr Oak Lake.  It was close.  I guessed 100 yards.  The screaming continued in measured intervals.  As the scream filled the silent night, I would clench up, hold my breath and strain my eyes to see.  And then it would stop.  The silence between screams was less than 30 seconds and with each silence, I would wonder if the creature was coming closer.

I was aware.  Hyper-aware!  It was surreal.  And I knew that my actions could easily be deemed as thrilling, exciting, daring, or stupid.  I knew that.  But it didn't matter.  My primal "urge to know" drove me forward as if I were on auto-pilot.  

Finally, "the scream" was within 40 feet of me!  The sound was LOUD and I could hear the creature moving through the leaves.  I kept my cool, though my hands were shaking and sweaty and my heart was pounding audibly.  I scanned the edge of the forest with the flashlight, catching the eye shine of the creature several times. 

And finally, I was able to see a vague shape.  FOX!!!  YES!  Red Fox for sure!  Oh, happy day! SOLVED! ... and as if the fox knew I had completed my mission, he gave one last wail, and then retreated deep into the forest.

I went back to the cabin and listened to my sound recordings over and over, feeling so proud and satisfied that this mystery was finally going to be put to rest.  I didn’t rest however, too much excitement!


This scream is common in Red Fox.  It is known by many as the “Vixen Scream”, as a female fox is called a vixen.  Vixens scream during mating for seemingly a bunch of different reasons.  I’ve read lots of information, and the bottom line is – foxes “scream” and our fox screamed!  

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