Ash, Lead Naturalist
"Spooky" Nocturnal Animals
Written By: Ashley Goldbeck
Did you know; the forests and fields surrounding Willow River and Kinnickinnic State Parks are not haunted, despite what some campers and hikers may claim! In fact, I’m confident in saying the same goes for the woods surrounding your home too, no matter how spooky they may seem! Over the years, I have heard reports of spine-chilling noises coming from the woods at night here in the park. And, as a little girl growing up in the country, I remember being terrified of an animal us neighbor hood kids referred to as “AARRRR!” who was now looking back, usually responsible for getting us all home by curfew.
With Halloween approaching the nights are getting cold, dark and sometimes dreary. However, I promise these spooky sounds are not ghosts out to steal your s’mores or soul! Nocturnal animals are likely responsible for these eerie noises you are hearing. Unlike Diurnal animals (active during the day), these animals must hunt, mate, and rear young under the cover of darkness, and because of this they often rely on other senses then vision to effectively, hunt and communicate with others in the dark. Lets take a look at some now! You might even find yourself giggling for being scared of some of these cute, cuddly and mostly harmless creatures of the night!
One of the eeriest sounds in the night comes from the Barred Owl. They sit in the trees bobbing their head from side to side listening for critters scurrying about on the ground. They have precise hearing and move quick as a flash, silently swooping down to claim their meal. As they hunt through the night they sometimes let out a dog-like yelp, other times they seem to be calling out: “Who cooks for you--who cooks for you all?” Listen for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GQZYKHPzxY
The Eastern Screech Owl relies on its call at night for mating tactics. But they also make many weird trills, which could easily startle a nighttime hiker or camper. Check this video out that was captured during the day, even in broad daylight the owl still sounds a little creepy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRsl0-D4AQQ
The Great Horned Owl is the one of the toughest birds on earth. It hunts through the night taking prey such as other birds, snakes, raccoons and even skunks! In fact, these owls often smell like skunk because they are often sprayed in desperate defense upon attacking their prey. However, they have extra eyelids that protect their eyes from the spray so dinner is not often interrupted for the owl. Listen to their call here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsIygCtoqYg
Red fox are responsible for a lot of the weird noises you hear at night. They move through the night looking hunting for a variety of foods like frogs, mice, raccoons, etc. They have several different calls each almost as chilling as the next. As scary as they may seem though, they are simply mating calls, or attempts to warn fox kits of danger, sometimes they are even noises they make while playing. Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6NuhlibHsM
Often mistaken as dogs, or wolves coyotes are a common animal in the area. They live in dens under ground usually near fields and forests or right outside residential areas where their prey are abundant. In the spring and summer they will hunt singly or in very small groups feasting on rabbits and other small animals but in the long, cold winter months they will join forces to take down deer. Here is the sound of a “pack of Coyotes”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwN24uzc77Q
Meet the cute and cuddly looking fisher (a.k.a “AAARRR!” as us kids coined him in our neighborhood growing up). Fishers are rare to see because they are solitary animals that require large areas of dense mature conifer woodlands. Fishers eat rabbits, rodents, birds, and are one of the few specialized predators of porcupines! Seeing one is typically an exciting experience, but hearing their scary call in the night is a whole different story. See for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nbw_41AxYE
The Little Brown Bat sleeps and lazily grooms itself during the day, but by night they are fast creatures, hunting and eating up to half of their body weight in insects. The use of echolocation allows them to easily find their prey in the dark. With sharp molars and canines, they typically devour meals while in flight. They also use the tip of their wing to capture food. They are known to eat insects off of the fur of other animals. Humans who see this often mistake it as an attack, which likely brought about the “vampire” or “blood sucking” stigma. Listen to their night calls here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppLsu5Z2Np0&t=16s
Although often considered a nuisance rodent, raccoons are actual quite smart and adaptable, they’ve learned to survive almost anywhere. As we all know, Raccoons will eat anything to survive including garbage or pet food. Hearing them at night often startles campers until you shine a light into their little masked faces and realize their just trying to steal your hot dogs! Their distinct call can be heard here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=utyPoNovm3E
This might be the last animal you want to run into in the middle of the night. Black bear are very curious creatures. They will saunter onto your property to eat your pet’s food, empty your bird feeders, or steal the contents of your cooler if you’re camping! The best way to avoid confrontation is to keep food sources out of the reach of their highly sensitive nose! They have even been known to break into cars for food. If you do come across a black bear, do NOT run. Retreat slowly, still facing the bear. They are known to make mock-charges towards what they consider a threat– if they do this, stand your ground and shout. Listen to their distinct snort and growl here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3o2cMGCMK2c
Make it a Family Adventure!
There are many more animals like mice, moths, crickets, snakes, crickets, frogs, wolves, rabbits, skunks, beetles etc. that become active at night. In fact, it would take all night to identify them all. So now I challenge you to see how many you can find. Hit a favorite hiking trail under the cover of darkness. Bring a flashlight, a camera and a friend, family member, or personal bodyguard (for those who scare easy). And see how many different creatures of the night you can hear and/or recognize!
If hiking with young ones make a game out of it!
Ask them what kind of animals they typically see out at night? (Deer, frogs, moths, etc.) Explain how nocturnal animals don’t always have the best eyesight and therefore they rely on other senses like smell, touch, taste and sound. Use the animals we discussed earlier for example! Have them show you how good of a nighttime hunter they would be by testing their senses in complete darkness!
Have them smell something (a mushroom, dirt, handful of grass, a fragrant plant (garlic mustard, hydrangea, rose, etc.)
Have them feel something (a pine cone, feather, rock, thistle, snake skin, dead leaf, etc.)
Have them listen to a couple sounds (snap twigs, crumple leaves, use a deer or duck call, or something as simple as ringing a bell or blowing gently on a whistle. Sneak around them quietly and see how good their hearing is from near or far away in all different directions)
Have them test their night vision (Hold up a couple of pictures (starting with a bit of distance inbetween you) and see if they can identify whats in the pictures) keep moving closer until they can finally identify what the object in the picture is. Depending on how dark it is, you might find they’ll need to hold it right in front of their face!
Once done, ask them how easy or hard they think it would be to be a nocturnal animal. Wrap up the hike by insuring them that there are many nighttime animals that can see very well in the night and might even be watching you now! Mwuhahahahah! Happy Halloween!