Chapter Forty-Three: Hearing (And Not Hearing) Things

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Thursday 18 May 1995 - Lots of grouse drumming again this evening. I usually don't hear them except when I am stopped. Sally usually points them out, then I stop walking and can hear them for myself.

There are lots of ruffed grouse (locally, "patridges") on the Hill, and in the spring you can hear the males "drumming" all over the forest. As son-in-law Jeff describes it, it sounds like somebody trying to start up an engine - pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, the first couple "pops" loud and distinctive, then trailing off quicker and lower-pitched to the end. It's a great forest sound. Unfortunately, it is one I don't hear anywhere near as often as many other people do.

It has to do with the ears of individuals. You may think you hear everything around you, but probably you don't. Even without "hearing problems," I doubt that anybody can take in the whole spectrum of possible sounds. With age or physical changes, people lose parts of their range of hearing. I haven't completely lost the range of ruffed grouse drumming, but any other competing noises often mask it. Just the sound of my own walking can sometimes obscure it; if I stop a minute: hey, there's a grouse drumming!

The first time I remember encountering such selective hearing was in the 1970s in southern California, when a friend and I ran a Breeding Bird Survey route for a number of years. The Survey is a nationwide effort to identify changes in bird life over time. The idea is to follow a certain route each year, in early summer when bird song is at its highest levels, and record the type and numbers of birds heard and seen. One person calls out the birds identified, while a recorder writes down the count. Over a period of years, the standarized survey identifies trends in the number of species and their relative abundance.

Because birds start singing well before daylight, most of the identifications during the first half of each survey are made from song, not sight. Because my survey partner was much better than I was identifying species by their songs, he was always the "counter" and I was the recorder. To take one of the possible variables out of the survey, only those birds seen or heard by the "counter" counted; comparing notes between the counter and recorder wasn't allowed, as it might throw off the "statistics."

Although I understood the rationale behind the count, I almost went crazy during a couple of stops early on the route. It was still fairly dark then, so most of the counting was by sound. There were so many mourning doves calling at those several stations that - for me - it was almost overwhelming. The dozens of doves all cooing simultaneously made it extremely difficult for me to hear anything else, yet my "counter" seldom recorded a dove! It was quite a few years later, when my own hearing was changing, that I understood why he couldn't hear them.

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Thursday 6 September 2001 - Late in the afternoon, I heard an owl calling from the woods below the house. It seemed much too slow and low-pitched to be a barred owl, and I was pretty confident it was a great horned owl [even though we’ve never heard one on the hill before]. I played a horned owl tape recording a couple times, and it eventually flew up and landed nearby to check me out. It stayed in the vicinity until after dark, calling regularly. We both got a lot of good looks at it. For awhile, it was perched on a very small bare limb at the top of a smallish tree. It was a pretty precarious perch, but it sat easily. Every time it hooted, it would tip its tail up like a wren.

Friday 7 September 2001 - We saw the horned owl this morning, and heard him calling from about 1800 on for some time. He may have started earlier, but we didn’t hear him until I shut off the generator.

A sound I may have missed at times is the hooting of the great horned owl. I say may have missed because the call, although very distinct, is of a soft, low pitch easily covered by other sounds (like our generator). I also say it because Sally's dad had them on the Hill occasionally in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but our 2001 observations were the first for me in over thirty years of birding at Camp. On the other hand, horned owls are not noted as birds of dense forests. Slim's observations were from a time when the forests on the Hill were still young; ours were after the Ice Storm and all the tree cutting that came just before and just after. Perhaps the area was not attractive to them in those middle years of more mature woodlands.

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Tuesday 10 June 1997 - About 2100, Sally heard what was obviously a saw-whet owl. We listened for awhile, then I got out the tape recorder and played calls back to it. It moved around quite a bit, but never really came up to the recorder like some owls will. All the to-do attracted two barred owls, so I started playing their calls, too. They responded dramatically, and were still calling right at the house an hour after I gave up the fun.

A sound I'm pretty confident I didn't miss was the whistling of the saw-whet owl. It has been compared to the backing-up "beeping" of a truck or bus. It's like that, but to me it has a higher, sharper pitch, and goes on and on and on, much longer than any vehicle in reverse. I only heard it on three nights in June 1997, but I doubt it is a sound that would have gone undetected, if anywhere near me.

Having said that, apparently it is a sound that can be lost to some people's hearing. The only other record was have of the species on the Hill was in August 1953, when Sally's folks were by themselves at Camp. The occurrence became the substance of an oft-repeated family story. As told to me, the owl started calling very close to the house, so was very loud - at least, to Calista. She asked Slim what was making that sound, but he claimed not to hear anything. As the calling continued, Cal asked Slim to turn on, or turn up, his hearing aid. He did, just as the owl blasted him with a "beep." He heard it then, all right, probably like someone blowing a whistle right into his ear. His first reaction was to turn on Cal, and demand to know what she had done to him.


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