Meditations: On animal sounds; or, what does a chipmunk say?

By Kristen Lindquist | Aug 20, 2011
Photo by: Tammy Davis

Spending time playing with my young nieces, I’m reminded that among the first things we teach children — in addition to body parts (where’s your nose?), colors, numbers, and the ABCs — is what sounds different animals make. There’s the toy barn with the door that moos, the toy that oinks when you push on the pig, meows when you push the cat, etc., and Old McDonald is still on his farm with a “baa, baa” here and a “quack, quack” there. By age two, most kids have the household and barnyard animals down pat, along with being able to roar like a lion and squeak like a mouse, even if they’ve never actually seen any of these creatures.

But what about the other animals that live around them, in their own back yards and woods? What does a deer say, or a raccoon? Or a chipmunk? Turns out that many adults, myself included, are still learning their wild animal sounds.

Recently, a birder I know emailed me and a few other fellow birders a short sound recording of a bird he’d heard in the woods near his house. He was mystified by the sound and wondered if it was made by a yellow-billed cuckoo, a uncommon species in Maine. I played the recording several times and was stumped by the long series of low, repeated “cluck” notes, deep and even-toned. I played black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoo songs to compare, and neither sounded quite right, although the cadence was closest to the black-billed. I played other bird songs, but nothing matched. I had no clue. By day’s end, however, we had an answer, from an experienced birder up in Aroostook County: It was a chipmunk.

Now, I’ve heard chipmunks. Lots of them. And so had my birder friend. Who in this part of the world hasn’t startled a chipmunk in a stone wall and heard its sharp “chip!” as it disappears into a crevice? Or perhaps heard that same piercing chip, repeated incessantly by the vigilant chipmunk near its hole on the edge of the lawn? There’s no shortage of chipmunks in this part of Maine. So while my friend felt humbled and a bit embarrassed, I was more surprised by this answer, and not just because I’d thought the sound must’ve been made by a bird. If you’re listening for birds, you’re going to hear what you assume is a bird. But I thought I knew what sound a chipmunk makes. And this was a whole new sound.

Curiosity piqued, I unearthed from amid by bird song CDs a cassette tape called “Wild Sounds of the Northwoods,” by Lang Elliott and Ted Mack. The tape features 111 species, mostly birds, but also 10 different frogs (and a toad), one insect (pine sawyer), and seven mammals, including the wily critter in question, the Eastern Chipmunk.

Fortunately, I still possess one of those technological relics, a cassette player, and was able to play the tape to verify what a chipmunk sounds like. Sure enough, there was the familiar, high-pitched “chip, chip, chip” sound from which the CHIPmunk undoubtedly got its name. But after a short pause, another sound: “cluck, cluck, cluck,” just like on my friend’s recording. I’d obviously been more focused on the birds than the beasts when I used to listen to this tape.

The tape comes with a handy booklet that details the habitat of each creature featured on the recording, as well as a description of its voice. The chipmunk is described thus: “Responds to danger from ground predators with high-pitched chips, repeated from a safe perch: chip, chip, chip, chip, chip…. A deeper cluck-call is given in response to aerial predators: cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck….” I felt the dawning of enlightenment as I read this. Of course I only knew the first call: To a chipmunk, I’d be perceived as a ground predator. I was reminded of various studies that have shown that different species of monkeys will make a distinctly different noise when perceiving an aerial versus a ground threat. Vervet monkeys in Africa, for example, have three different alarm calls to indicate whether the observed predator is a leopard, martial eagle, or python. But who would have expected a little rodent like a chipmunk to possess such semantic abilities?

As things often go, since this aural revelation I’ve heard this second chipmunk call several times now. When I run this time of year, I leave my iPod at home because I like to keep my ears open for any birds I might hear along my route. I keep a mental list as I go, which helps distract me from my laboring lungs. On my last run, I heard cardinal, goldfinch, song sparrow, catbird, house wren, titmouse, possible chestnut-sided warbler, ovenbird, robin, hermit thrush, and blue jay, plus a chipmunk’s “aerial predator” call from deep within the woods bordering Cobb Road. Perhaps a crow was perched nearby, or one of the neighborhood merlins. I’m hesitant to confess how excited I was to hear that call for myself in the wild and to know what it meant.

As I played through my “Wild Sounds of the Northwoods” cassette, I was reminded of my favorite wild animal sound, at least as exemplified in this collection: The porcupine. The accompanying booklet describes its voice perfectly: “Generally silent, but during squabbles with other porkies, individuals make expressive screaming sounds that have an unforgettable character suggesting cry-baby discontent.” It’s difficult not to anthropomorphize when a complaining animal sounds so much like a whiny human.

The play list also includes white-tailed deer, which I’ve heard snort in a most un-Bambi-like way when startled along a trail, and red squirrel, one of the more assertively vocal creatures I’ve ever come across while hiking in the woods. The scolding red squirrel’s staccato stream of chucks and chips is certainly more difficult to replicate for a child’s instruction than, say, the horse that goes “neigh.” Surprisingly, the tape doesn’t include coyote or even red fox, which has a distinctive bark and a blood-curdling territorial scream which sounds eerily human. I’ve heard a fisher’s scream is similarly terrifying. Perhaps Elliott and Mack wanted to keep their cassette family-friendly. I’m just thankful that it included the chipmunk that says, “Cluck, cluck, cluck.”

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