Nature Notes: A Little Night Music

Bird song is older than human song and in many respects is as tuneful and melodic as human song

   In many respects, sound and hearing in nature are just as important as sight. In those species that are more nocturnal than diurnal, sounds and the ability to hear, and differentiate, them is crucial to their survival. Whether an animal species is active in the day or at night, there’s a greater than 50 percent chance that it perceives sound waves or senses vibrations, another form of sound.
    There is still much to be explained about the origin of a special configuration of sounds — music — in humans. There are ancient instruments fashioned from bones, reeds, or other matter that date back to the very dawn of Homo sapiens. Drumming may be the oldest form of human music. Some primates drum — the gorilla beating his chest is a good example — but none of the contemporary primates other than humans sing, though several howl. Howling may have given rise to the first song.
    Bird song is older than human song and in many respects is as tuneful and melodic as human song. The nightingale of Eurasia is a fabled singer. Here in the Northeast we have some fabulous bird songs, as well. Take the hermit thrush, for one. Its song, an organ-like spiral of ascending notes, is considered to be among the most lovely of all native bird utterings. Only 20 years ago, one could still hear them just before dusk singing in East Hampton’s Northwest, especially in the Grace Estate.
    There is a catbird in my yard that literally sings for its supper. It whines and moans its atonal string of rarely repeated notes, reminding me to put the blueberries out on the patio table each day. I do, and he stops singing and starts absconding with them one by one until, in a matter of minutes, they are gone.
    All birds make different sounds. They use their larynx and their pneumatic system of air tubes. Woodpeckers do the same, but they also telegraph their messages — “this is my territory, keep out” — by rapidly drumming on a resonant surface such as a hollow tree or the metal flue pipe from a furnace.
    Almost all mammals utter sounds, but, save for humans, the sounds they make are short in duration and not at all musical. Canines howl, felines growl, meow, or purr, ungulates moo, and so on. The songs of whales are musical, at least to some ears.
    Some reptiles, such as turtles and snakes, hiss, while some, like the geckos, chatter, but most are silent. The crocodile bellows, baby crocs squeal, rattlesnakes make sounds with their rattles. Most reptiles are active during the day, but amphibians — frogs, toads, salamanders, and the like — are more likely to be active at dusk and at night than during the day. Salamanders are largely quiet, but the frogs and their allies are quite vociferous, especially when it’s dark.
    Some frog songs, such as the soft monotonic tremolos of the gray tree frog, are quite pleasing to the human ear. On the other hand, one would hardly say that the very low “jug-o-rums” of the night-calling bullfrog or the banjo twangs of the green frog are melodious. Toads buzz and wheeze, frogs have a variety of calls, but the amphibious call that stirs my cockles is the one uttered only after a prolonged rainstorm. Years can go by without hearing it.
    Such is the song that Barbara Adams played for me over the phone using her cellphone’s recorder and playback function: the nasal cawings of a thousand ravens or crows, eerie and provocative. Ravens and crows don’t call at night. Spadefoot toads do, but only after very heavy rains.
    Yes, she had recorded the calls of the eastern spadefoot toad, one of the rarest of our native amphibians and the one with the loudest call, the one that stays underground for years, and only comes out to breed in temporary pondings created by soaking rains, such as the three to five-inch one that accompanied Tropical Storm Andrea as it swept through on Friday of last week. Accompanied by the high chirpings of spring peepers, spadefoots were calling throughout the weekend from the dunes along Bluff Road in Amagansett and on Napeague, near where the editor of this newspaper resides.
    After mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, comes the most primitive vertebrate group of all, the fishes. Many fish make sounds and a few even “sing,” that is change notes during their delivery. One of them, the oyster toadfish, utters the famous “boat-whistle” song, which is so loud that it can be heard above the water’s surface by those with acute hearing. It’s mostly a night singer like the amphibians and it used to be quite common in local estuarine waters. It’s a favorite gourmet item on some Asian restaurant menus and thus has become quite scarce locally in the new millennium.
    A close cousin, the “midshipman” male of California coastal waters, utters a monotonic drone that can last for an hour or more without a pause. The male uses his song to attract a female to his lair in the rocks, and when she comes, he is so pleased to see her that he lights up, turning on all of his photophores in a spectacular display of light and sound leading to courtship, ovulation, and fertilization. The houseboat community in San Francisco Bay at Sausalito is kept awake at night by the low-pitched droning. At the same time, the fish’s arrival is celebrated each spring with a special day, thus its new common name, the “California singing fish,” has replaced the former one.
    One more night song is of note these days, that of the 17-year cicada adult. Staten Islanders are already lying awake at night listening, or trying not to listen. We will be spared, if that’s your desire, but in another month keep your ears open for the all-night chorus provided by the snowy tree cricket. Owing to the recent heavy rains and the lushness of the foliage, it should be deafening.