The Music of the Night

Originally published June 2013

Hello everyone! No I am not covering the life of a certain Gaston Leroux character as seen through the eyes of the Rice/Loyd-Webber combination. Rather my theme is the natural sounds that we fortunate ruralites can hear punctuating our hours of darkness. If, like me, you have a penchant for a more nocturnal lifestyle you will be aware of just how voiciferous our fauna is throughout the night.

Most of us associate night-time with Owls, Nightingales, Crickets and Frogs. Indeed our ponds are teeming with the offspring of our native Frog (Rana temporaria) at present; the result of a few, rather chilly, nights of noisy courtship back in March. Their distant relations, the Laughing Marsh Frogs (Pelophylax ridibundus) can be heard cackling in unison as they continue with their occupation of the marshlands of the south east.

In our part of the the country, the mammal you are most likely to hear calling out at night, apart from the odd sheep and domestic dog or cat, is a Fox. TQW lone-fox-pat-lewisThe native Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) has a variety of calls but it is the haunting Banshee-like scream of the vixen, heard during the mating season in December and January, that makes people sit up and notice.

If you listen carefully on a still night (if we get any in the near future!) you may hear one of a wide range of sounds eminating from the throats of our Badgers (Meles meles) and their cubs. The clever bods at Oxford University have distinguished sixteen distinct sounds and calls in the Brock’s vocabulary. These being the Churr, Purr, Wail, Chitter, Kecker, Growl, Snarl, Yelp, Squeak, Bark, Snort, Cluck, Coo, Chirp, Hiss and Grunt; it is well worth listening to them on one of the audio sites on the University’s webite. You may suddenly discover that those noisy birds, insects, cats or even wild boar you thought you were hearing whilst watching the last glimmer of your barbecue die out, are in fact the result of the Sett dwellers getting out and about.

As the Summer progresses (hopefully!) the insect population gets into full voice, or rather their equivalent of a voice as they do not have vocal chords or even lungs. Oxygen is acquired by diffusion into a complicated series of tubes called the Tracheal System. TQW Jun 13 cricketThe ubiquitous Cricket, of which there are many species, creates the familiar nocturnal chirp by scraping the serrated edges of its wings together. The creation of sound by rubbing body parts together, or stridulation (from Latin stridere – to make a harsh sound), is used by many insects. The distant relative of the Cricket, the diurnal Grasshopper, produces a more rasping kind of sound by chafing its hind leg against a wing. Ironically you are not likely to hear the loudest animal on earth (relative to body size) by day or night, despite the fact they are widely distributed throughout this country. The tiny Micronecta scholtzi, a member of the family of Water Boatmen, measures just 2mm in length and can produce an astounding 99.2 decibels by rubbing its genitalia against its abdomen. You would need to take specialist underwater microphones to our local marshlands to hear them live. However you can, if you so wish, listen to the results of this Minibeast’s feat of contortionism in the comfort of your front room via a quick search in the virtual world of the Internet.

TQW Jun 13 nightingaleWe are fortunate enough to have the lovely sound of the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) emanating from the midst of bushes and thickets in our locality. This dowdy little bird sings around the clock from April until June before returning to the warmer climes of Africa in September. Throughout the Summer months Reed and Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus and Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) will sing extensively through the night but our most common night-time songster is our native Robin (Erithacus rubecula), often mistaken for a Nightingale (see December 2011).

By far and away the bird considered by most to be the true nocturnal denizen of our countryside is the Owl. We have five species of Owl in Britain, but only three of them are commonly found in Sussex, the Tawny Owl (Strix aluco), Barn Owl (Tyto alba) and Little Owl (Athene noctua). TQW Jun 13 owlThe last few weeks in Crowhurst have seen, or rather heard, our night-time hours resounding to the familiar calls of the Tawny Owl during the breeding season. Contrary to popular opinion the famous twit-twoo is more likely to sound like ke-wick hoo-hoo-oooo and is never voiced by one bird. It is usually a male answering a female or, sometimes, another male. June and July are silent times for Tawny adults when they moult and tend to their chicks. They come back with renewed vigour in August and September to re-establish their territories for the next breeding season. Unlike the Tawny, the Barn Owl does not call out but will emit a series of blood-curdling screeches and hisses when marking out their territory or their nest is disturbed. The introduction of the Little Owl into Britain in the 19th Century has been accredited to one Thomas Powys, 4th Baron Lilford, aristocrat and keen ornithologist. The bird has eight recognisable calls, most of which make it sound like a bad-tempered Harpy. An image accentuated by the dark patches around its yellow eyes giving it a permanent frown. Like the Barn Owl the Little Owl is active during daylight hours and is in fact, despite decreasing numbers, one of the most frequently observed owls.TQW owlaamilne

Despite its rather grumpy persona, the Little Owl may have been the reason that Owls are associated with wisdom. Greek legend tells us that Athene, Goddess of war and wisdom, adopted the bird as a companion when she became angry with the Crow and turned his snow-white feathers black; an act that influenced the Little Owl’s nomenclature several centuries on when it was given its binomial name by the famed physician and naturalist Giovanni Antonio Scopoli in 1769.

Despite being venerated by some cultures, Owls have been associated with darkness and death for several centuries. It is said that an Owl foretold the death of Julias Caesar. The Romans, always at the forefront of popular superstition, started to nail the bird to front doors in order keep evil away, a practice that endured into 18th Century Britain. Authors and playwrights were not always as kind to the Owl as the creator of Pooh Bear and friends. The idea of the Owl as a harbinger of death and destruction has been a persistent theme in classical literature.TQW evil owl copy

Birds of omen dark and foul,Night-crow, raven, bat, and owl,Leave the sick man to his dream –All night long he heard your scream.
A Legend of Montrose, Sir Walter Scott (1819)

Personally I consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to enjoy the magnificent music of the night, long may it continue!
As always, put me right at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson

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Image 2: Macro-grilo-cricket by Feans, used under Creative Commons License 2.0 / Image 3: Common Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) by Noel Reynolds, used under CC2.0 / Image 4: Tawny Owl by Chris Paul, used under CC2.0


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