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Moaners and Screamers

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Moaners and Screamers

I’m told the interminable three-minute shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a masterpiece of simulated horror that, on its review by actress Janet Leigh, left her with a lifelong phobia of showering and a mania for locking doors and windows. I wouldn’t know about that. I must have seen the movie 267 times and I really don’t know what all the fuss is about. In my case, my hands have never failed me…always shooting up over my eyes just before the action starts.

Steve Van Dyck on noises in the night

Yet my thumbs have never been able to shut out Bernard Herrmann’s ‘music’, so famously joined-at-the-hip to that scene. Shrill, tinny, stabbing Stradivarian bird-shrieks. From where I sit pressing my eyeballs, the effect may be slightly worse than the real thing. When you combine a vivid imagination with the pressure-induced flashings of colour on my retinas, and those biting, ear-splitting screams of the violins I feel that, by the end of the three minutes, I’ve actually experienced something worse than the people with their eyes open. Particularly as those not bearing down on their eyelids are watching a movie made only in black and white.

Given the terror that’s induced by noise alone, it might come as no surprise that out in that other great black-and-white arena, the Australian bush at night, I have a reputation for both my value-added imagination and a tendency to simultaneously reach for the brown corduroys. And with very good reason. Australian days may ring with the benign warbles of magpies, but gird up your loins, because after dark we have out there a suite of nocturnal screamers and grunters guaranteed to turn the toughest bronzed Auzzie bowels to water.

Top of the list by about 4000 decibels is a bone-chilling roar that once had my wife and I huddled in the far corner of our tent all night waiting to be disemboweled. We’d figured the creature outside must have been an escaped lion desperate for real flesh after a lifetime of zoo-issue soya-loaf. Many years later, and having since identified the embarrassing source of those appalling roars, I was consulted by some men – tough by bar-room standards – who’d also endured the same bellowing routine. They’d locked themselves in their ute for the night, waiting nervously with cocked rifles for claws and slavering teeth to rip the doors off their hinges. Miraculously living through their ordeal, they’d made all the logical Auzzie conclusions and attributed the atrocious aural adventure to a roving yowie.

On playing them a recording of the offender, none other than a rampant red deer bellowing across a reverberating valley (but not yet identifying the beast to them), they’d unanimously agreed that yes, indeed, it was a yowie call. But judging by the disbelief on their ashen faces when told what it was, I wondered what they were going to regret more…the annoying glitch in such a compelling pub yarn, or the amount of time they’d spent disinfecting the interior of their car for the sake of a big, bawling Bambi.

Male red deer (Cervus elaphus) roar and attempt copulation relentlessly between March and June. This period of unparalleled preoccupation with ball sports is appropriately called the rut, a term that most Australian females of a not-so-distantly related species could justifiably exchange for a similar period of preoccupation their mates disguise under the phrase…the footy season.

Not so long ago, wild red deer, introduced to Australia from Great Britain in the late nineteenth century, were restricted mainly to a big population in subtropical southeast Queensland. However, illegal releases and deer-farm escapees have seeded growing feral populations elsewhere in Queensland as well as throughout New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Author Tim Low has predicted that as a threat to the environment, a destroyer of crops and pasture, and a social nuisance, deer could well be on their way to becoming Australia’s next major pest. Red deer are already officially listed as one of the 100 worst invasive species on the planet.

Not as earth-shaking as the roar of the red deer, but far more disturbing on account of its hideously human timbre, is that shout attributed down the years to the barking owl (Ninox connivens). Apparently (for the jury is now out) this owl has a number of calls, among which are the ‘wok-wok; wok-wok’ (as expected) and a ‘screaming woman’ call that is supposed to sound like a woman being strangled – again very Hitchcockian to those of us raised on (and damaged by), the great director. I have heard this but once in my life, one night when I was about 13, on a five-day fly-infested walk along Coxs River near the Blue Mountains. It was a hideously ear-piercing scream followed by a throttling gurgle, and would have been excruciatingly disturbing for everyone round the fire had not one of the mob been a twitcher who’d been praying every day for the past ten years for a first-hand encounter with this bird and its horrendous call.

But (another glitch here) we didn’t actually see the creature responsible for the awful screams. Australian ornithologist/photographer Graeme Chapman now questions if this call really belongs to the barking owl at all, proposing that the goose-pimpling shrieks might be made by mating red foxes (Vulpes vulpes). Turn out the lights, turn up the volume and listen for yourself at http://graemechapman.com.au/cgi-bin/sounds.php?c=353&p=53 and see if your hair doesn’t look good in afro. 

If being forewarned is forearmed then ‘sensitive’ walkers, before committing themselves to the blackness of the bush at night, should listen also to the chilling calls made by some other shockers: yellow-bellied gliders, brushtail possums, bush thick-knees (curlews), koalas, flying foxes, alley cats and the appalling scream of a rabbit caught in a trap.

Thirty-three years on and my wife still wakes up in a cold sweat to the roaring that threatened to tear us apart all those years ago. But it’s not coming from outside the tent, more from below the sheets and the apnoeic old stag lying alongside her. It must be comforting for her to subconsciously know that with me nearest the doorway, any disembowelling that has to take place is now a vastly bigger task, giving her ample time to gather her belongings and get away.

Dr Steve Van Dyck is the Senior Curator of Vertebrates at the Queensland Museum and Wild’s newest regular columnist.

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