Charlie Portlock asks us to listen as well as look at the countryside around us
Charlie tells us how to interpret the sounds of the woodland to our advantage. Keep your ears tuned in!
If you have access to the internet please visit www.charliesrifles.co.uk/treetalk to hear the following sounds in order as you read the article below.
In the UK, we’re fortunate not to have to worry about the risk of encountering a large carnivore whilst camping in the woods. However, the same couldn’t be said for Jim Corbett, the legendary Anglo-Indian hunter of man- eating leopards and tigers. When he was called in to stalk an old or wounded animal that had found a taste for human flesh, he needed to keep his wits about him. In fact his wits alone would never have been enough, and he knew it. For his personal safety he relied heavily upon his ability to interpret the communication of other jungle animals, and by listening to the calls of birds, deer and other prey species, he was able to track individual tigers as they moved through the landscape. A useful skill when trying to avoid a surprise encounter with a 200kg predator.
When we’re hunting, we can use these same skills to deepen our connection with the landscape and to determine how ‘settled’ an area is. In the woods, there are scores of stories unfolding all around us and we have only to tune into these sounds to discover animated territorial disputes between songbirds, crows revealing the location of a raptor, or squirrels tracking a fox as it stalks their brethren on the woodland floor.
All animals inherently understand the distress calls of other creatures, in just the same way that the jarring sound of a crying baby is universal to all humans. In animals this is known as interspecific communication. Humans do something similar when we see somebody talking to their friend/ lover/mother in a different language; we instinctively understand the spirit and intention of what they’re saying without needing to know the exact content. Incidentally, the same is true for footfall.
If you think back to the house that you grew up in, or even the one you live in now, it’s likely that you’re able to tell who’s moving around the house from the sound of their feet. The same is true in the woods; unless we’re very quiet and very slow, it will be obvious to everybody what we are and where we’re going.
All mammals and birds communicate with their own species in some way, and warning calls are the ones that we’re most likely to recognise. All of these initial alarms share similar characteristics that make them distinct from the sounds used in social or territorial communication, and once you’ve learned to recognise them you’ll probably start hearing them everywhere. They’re often brash, high pitched and are normally delivered in short, aggressive and unstructured bursts.
The following sounds are some of the most common alarm calls to be heard in broadleaved British woodland and within many northern, temperate forests.
THE GREY SQUIRREL The Kuk
“Look out! A predator is near!”
The kuk is a short, bark-like call normally delivered staccato fashion in rapid groups ‘ kuk kuk kuk - kuk kuk’ and serves as a general alarm with two distinct purposes; firstly, to alert other squirrels that there’s a dangerous predator nearby, and secondly, to let that predator know it has been spotted and that it’s wasting its energy through continued pursuit. For the hunter, it means that you’ve been detected. However, provided that you sit silent and still, they’ll normally resume their activity in anything from two to 20 minutes.
“I can still see the predator but it looks like it’s leaving.”
The quaa is essentially a longer kuk, the sound sitting somewhere between a wet kiss and a disgruntled meow. You can hear something very close to it when you squeeze the trigger on a spray bottle of kitchen cleaner or some similar product. For the hunter the quaa means that whatever you’re doing (or not doing) is working and that you’ll soon be trying to keep your sights steady on the kill zone.
“I think the predator has gone, but I’m being loud to let it know that I’ve seen it and that I’m not coming down.”
Unlike the kuk and the quaa, this call has a less intense, tonal quality very similar to the soft whistling chirp of a songbird and it’s quite unmistakable. It’s often used alone
in response to aerial threats, but has also been shown to signal a further reduction in the alert level. For the impatient hunter, this is generally a good sound and unless there’s a raptor overhead, it means that the area will very soon be returning to normal activity.
Cock pheasants are noisy birds even when browsing, but their startled crow and spluttering flight alarm will make everything within earshot sit up and pay attention. If you move slowly and pause often, then you can often pass them without registering as a threat – well worth it, especially when stalking deer. The distinctive male, territorial, crowing call, normally accompanied by the loud ruffling of feathers, is a good indicator that the bird is relaxed and you’re not causing it much disturbance.
If you struggle to move through woodland without putting a cock pheasant on edge, then you probably need to slow down. They’re not easily spooked and are a good animal on which to hone your basic stalking skills.
If there was an award for the bird with the greatest sound-to-size ratio, then the blackbird would definitely be a contender. Its attractive song belies an impressive vocal ability that’s all too evident in the piercing volleys of razor- edged chirps heard as it leads you away from its shrub-level nest. They’re breeding now, so expect plenty of activity.
As they live and work well above the shrub layer, woodpeckers – both green and great spotted – are less likely to be worried by your passage than songbirds. However, it’s interesting to be aware of the alarm calls of both species because they can provide a window to how your progress is being viewed from above. Both deliver single, high-pitched pips that increase in frequency with the proximity of the threat.
The Jay is a woodland- dwelling corvid and is notoriously difficult to spot, darting as it does between areas of thick cover. Its alarm call is a familiar harsh rattle, similar to a magpie, but louder and uglier and is normally given on the move. Like all corvids these birds have excellent eyesight and there’s not a huge amount you can do to avoid detection completely. Thankfully, they’re generally quite noisy and squirrels don’t seem to be bothered too much by them.
Tail flicking and flagging also form an important part of predator alarms, particularly when paired with vocalisations. Although this topic is still being studied, it’s possible that the combination of different tail signals and calls could allow squirrels to communicate the specific nature of a threat (aerial or terrestrial) as well as its location. In addition, the white tails found on rabbits and fallow deer can alert other animals to danger nearby and it’s thought that the woodpigeon’s white collar serves a similar purpose; a rapidly retreating white blob is obvious to all creatures.
SOUNDS OF CALM
If you’re quiet and well concealed, then after about 20 minutes or so you’ll begin to hear the trees and shrubs come back to life as squirrels and songbirds return to their daily routine. I’ve had wood mice crawl over my boot, and have often watched pheasants, rabbits and even foxes pass almost within reach. One of the most reassuring sounds for woodland creatures is the soft cooing of roosting woodpigeon. As many readers will know, these birds are easily disturbed and if they’re off guard then the rest of the woods will be too.
Understanding the sound of a calm, undisturbed woodland is useful in providing feedback on how well concealed you are, as well as enabling you to measure how long you might have to wait for your quarry to make an appearance. Within all woodland, there are sounds that animals treat as cues to signal the ‘all clear’, prompting them to return to normal activity. Alarm is cumulative and is heard by all creatures. The calmer the soundscape, the more likely you are to encounter wildlife of all shapes and sizes, whether you intend to bag them or not. Deep listening is one of human kind’s oldest skills and it’s well worth rediscovery. Once you begin to read the sonic landscape, it will be difficult to experience the woods in quite the same way again. Good luck out there. Charlie.
There’s talk in the trees ...
You should be able to pass a pheasant without causing alarm
Jays are noisy and highly alert
Squirrel language is well worth deciphering
Woodpigeon are the sentinels of the trees. If they’re calm, everything else will be too
Making use of shadow is always a good idea
Woodpeckers are less wary of humans than most birds
Blackbirds normally nest near in the shrub lay and are hard to avoid