Forestry & Wildlife
AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – The humming white noise of the constant croaks, crickets and coos of the summer nights is something that feels like home to most Alabamians. These sounds of summer are so familiar, yet often unidentifiable. Identifying the individual sounds of the night can give us a greater understanding of the wildlife in our backyards.
“If you live near the water or a water source, the sky is the limit in terms of what you can hear in your backyard,” said Jim Armstrong, a retired Alabama Extension wildlife scientist.
Some of the most frequent noises people may hear during a summer night include a range of insects. Katydids and crickets are the most common insects people hear, with there being multiple species of both insects.
“Many think that cicadas make some of this night noise,” said Fudd Graham, an Alabama Extension entomologist. “However, cicadas only sing during the day.”
According to Graham, katydids are green, long-horned grasshoppers.
“Katydids make a call that is often described as Katy did, Katy didn’t, she did, she didn’t, especially if there are a couple individuals calling,” Graham said.
When it comes to crickets, tree cricket individual chirping will blend into this long, continuous, high-pitched whine, which is what people often hear at night. Field crickets, however, chirp in shorter intervals during both the day and nighttime.
In addition to insects, there are also many amphibians that can fill the nighttime air with their songs. If a person lives near water, or there has been a lot of recent rainfall, they will likely hear frogs. There are many species of frogs, each having their own unique call. In fact, people can identify frog calls just like they would identify bird calls.
Two species in particular that people are likely to hear are green and gray tree frogs. These frogs make a loud chirping croak. The sounds of leopard frogs are also commonly heard croaks in the South.
“The sound of these frogs is a sound that reassures that things are okay in the world,” Armstrong said. “If there is some disturbance around, the frogs are quiet.”
If people do not live near water and hear croaking, they sound may be coming from toads instead of frogs. The American toad has a distinctive, high-pitched, quick chirp. Opposite of the American toad, the narrow-mouthed toad has a loud, abrupt screech call. Either of these calls may be identified in many backyards.
In addition to the constant sounds of insects and amphibians, the occasional call from an owl, nightjar or other bird can be heard in the night sky. Screech owls, barn owls, barred owls and great horned owls are the most common species people may hear in their backyard.
“Barn owls tend to make more of a crying sound,” Armstrong said. “They are the most likely to be heard in general.”
Some of the larger owls people may hear are the barred and great horned owls. A barred owl’s call is often described as who cooks for you? The great horned owl’s call is more of the classic hoot sound. Screech owls are smaller is size, but they can give off an extremely big sound. As their name implies, they make an alarming, loud, screeching sound.
“If you were alone at night and heard the call of a screech owl, it would definitely get your attention,” Armstrong said.
Other nighttime birds, such as the whip-poor-will, chuck-will’s-widow and the common nightjar, are all in the same family. According to Armstrong, it is possible to hear the whip-poor-wills call in certain areas.
Purpose of Nighttime Sounds
One of the main reasons that insects and amphibians make these sounds is for mating purposes. The common songs of the males attract the females. The male’s song may cause the female to make a sound that allows the male to locate the female. The songs of each species are different, and the females only respond to the songs of their own species. The periods of song are determined largely by light and temperature. Also, many species synchronize their songs when the first individuals begin to sing.
“This synchronization occurs in spite of other species singing in the same area and shows that the individuals can recognize the song of their own species easily,” Graham said.
Owls primarily use their sounds to claim territory and scare off intruders. They can also use them to alert others of predators or communicate with their mates.
For more information on identifying different noises and calls in your backyard, visit the Alabama Extension website at www.aces.edu. Also, learn more about differentiating certain calls on the National Public Radio’s website.