Why the Maine woods sometimes sound like a horror movie

By Julia Bayly, Bangor Daily News Staff

The first night in her new rural Maine home, shrill screams woke Lindsey Abbott from a sound sleep.

She’d just moved from Portland to a 10-acre homestead in Durham and found herself seriously questioning that life choice.

“I was in a city where I am used to hearing traffic,” Abbott said. “Now here I am surrounded by trees, laying on an air mattress and hear screaming — I was like ‘oh my gosh, what the heck did I do?’”

Turned out, what Abbott was likely hearing  was one of several fur bearing Maine critters whose nocturnal vocalizations rival the shrieks in the bloodiest slasher movies. 

Anyone who spends time in the Maine woods knows there are plenty of things that not only go bump in the night — they scream, shriek, howl and chatter. Knowing which sounds certain animals make is key to assessing if there are any creatures nearby that could pose a threat to you or your pets. 

“We’ve got a fair amount of screamers out there from the fox to your bobcat and the lynx that has a weird scream,” said John Pelletier, a Registered Maine Guide. “One people often don’t think about is the porcupine and they have one heck of a scream.”

By far the most common culprit is the fox, Pelletier said.

“I get calls about fox all the time,” Pelletier said. “People want me to listen to a recording, and when I tell them it’s a fox, they don’t believe me.”

Part of their doubt stems from the fact that fox vocalizations can vary depending on its gender, age and the time of the year.

“These animals are not just yodeling for their own fun,” said Keel Kemper, regional biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Every vocalization has a meaning whether it’s territorial, mating behavior or an alarm call to let others know there is danger in the area.”

Among the more distinctive sounds is the female fox trying to attract a mate with her version of a come hither Siren’s song.

“It’s known as the vixen scream,” Kemper said. “She makes this god-awful shrieking cackle that is very harsh and very loud.”

Kemp’s favorite woodland mammal is the fisher, an aggressive tree climbing member of the weasel family.

“Around 1980 I was up in the north woods camping at Pittston Farms,” Kemper said. “I was laying in my tent and something was sounding off right next to the tent and I just knew whatever it was, was going to get me so I was just going to hide in my sleeping bag figuring I was done for.”

Turns out the screams Kemper describes as “sounding like an old woman being stabbed to death,” were the blood-curdling screams of a fisher.

“People don’t realize we have more fishers than they think in the state,” Kemper said. “They are well distributed across the state but nocturnal and not easy to spot.”

Another noisy animal in Maine is the lynx. Kemper said whenever you get two of these large felines together, it can end in a screaming match.

“They stand face to face 6 inches apart and try to out scream at each other,” Kemper said. “It’s all about deciding who is the bigger and badder of the two.”

Their smaller relative the bobcat, on the other hand, has a rather mundane and fairly unremarkable barking sound.

Any time you hear what sounds like the amplified sounds of a rusty door hinge, it’s probably a porcupine.

“Porcupines have this sort of loud and aggressive squeak,” Kemper said. “It can wake you up.”

One of the larger vocabulary of sounds belongs to the coyote, according to Kemper.

“They have the ability to make a sort of strange screaming noise,” he said. “They are a typical pack oriented animal and their communication is between members of the pack about feeding, prey or territorial issues.”

Overhead, there are three owls that are active at night in Maine and the one you are most likely to hear is the barred owl.

“The barreds are very vocal and have the typical ‘whooo who whooo’ call,” Kemper said. “But they can also really launch off into this bizarro squawking and screaming and because they are very social they can all go off on each other.”

Despite his size and reputation as a fearsome night hunter, the great horned owl has a pretty mundane hooting call, Kemper said. The state’s smallest owl — the saw whet owl — has a pinging type call that he describes sounding like a submarine under the water.

“People may be curious about the sound the saw whet owl makes,” Kemper said. “But no one is ever going to be afraid of it.”

Abbott is slowly familiarizing herself with the animals and their sounds around her new homestead, but admits to still being a bit on edge.

“When you are sleeping and woken up by something so blood curdling, your initial reaction is to be scared,” she said. “But then I process it a little bit and know it can’t be anything too crazy and then I smile about how nice it is to have critters out there.”

Pelletier, who turns 67 this month, has spent most of his life in the northern Maine woods and agrees there is not much to be scared of out there, despite the screams.

“I’ve been at this a long time and most of the time when I hear those sounds I got them pegged,” he said. “The first time I heard a porcupine was the freakiest. I was just a kid and I asked my grandfather what it was [and] he took me out back to show me and [the porcupine] could not have cared less, it just climbed up a spruce tree.”

His office is happy to help people unfamiliar with Maine’s animals understand their sounds and behavior.

Given the variations in tone and pitch of vocalizations within species, Kemper did say it can be difficult to learn exactly what animal or bird is making what sound.

“Everyone kind of comes up with their own idea on what the animals sound like,” he said. “A lot of the sounds they make are variations on the same theme and I am a wildlife biologist, not Dr. Doolittle, so I don’t talk to the animals.”

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