Washington Evening Journal

Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 24, 2018

Tracks and Tales: Hush!

By Pam Holz

“Mom, what are we having for dinner?” asks my daughter.  “Chicken,” I reply, “do you want…” “Quiet!” she interrupts.
“Mom, what are we doing tomorrow?” she inquires later.  “I’m not sure, but...” “Shush it,” she commands.
I want to reassure everyone that I am not in the habit of letting my child order me around.  However, I was on a no-talking order during a recent bout of laryngitis and my daughter, after initially forgetting, was merely making sure I followed doctor’s orders.  
Admittedly, not talking was not easy for me.  I felt kind of isolated and removed.  The experts claim that verbal communication is only a minor part of how we let others know what is going on.  Posture, gestures, etc., tell us much more.  In my recent experience, however, I really think words work best to get that communication ball rolling.  
In nature, sound is also important for communication.  Birds, for example, are well known for their verbal communications of tweets, twitters, trills, and other lovely songs.  
But sometimes, animals prefer silence.  
Predators wish for silence when they are hunting.  Some even have specific adaptations to help them achieve that goal.  Owls, for example, have modified feathers to muffle the sound of wings; no other bird does.  Hawks have the same basic niche (function) in nature as owls, but operate the day shift.  A flap of the wing in the busy daytime could mean a hawk, but it could also be heron, goose, or the blackbird next door.  
At night, on the other hand, most of these noises are silent.  Sound also travels farther.  With fewer birds out, a wing flap more likely means owl and danger than anything else.  So owls lessen their sound impact by having feathers that disrupt sound.  The edges of their feathers appear softly frayed or “fuzzy.”  
If we think of a feather, generally the image that comes to mind is a nice, smooth-edged flight feather (from the wing).  If you’d draw it, you’d use a straight line.  An owl feather, though, would have a jagged line forming the feather.  These jags create little whirlpools of wind when the bird flies and thus a much softer flap.  
Owls are not the only hunters who silence their movements.  Wild canines and felines do the same in a practice called registering.  Four feet are a lot to keep track of, especially if you are trying to stalk an animal through noisier terrain (dry leaves, etc).  These hunters solve that problem by just having to concentrate on their front feet and then, placing their hind feet in the exact spots of their front.  If the front are placed in noiseless spots, then iftfollows so will the hind feet.  
The flip side to these predator adaptations is prey who learn also to be silent.  Noise announces your presence to someone who may want to eat you.  I find it interesting that if I play the sounds of a screech owl, a bird about 8 inches tall, the local birds often react strongly.  They might fly closer and often make alarm calls:  danger here, they cry out, beware, beware.  
Yet if I play the hoots of a barred owl, a much larger predator, often everyone freezes and goes silent.  While I don’t have the science to back it up, I do have a good educated guess to why this occurs.  The screech owl is only a little bigger than the other birds; if they band together in crying out their protest, they can scare the bully away.  However, a barred owl is much bigger threat; better be safe and shut up.  Think of it this way:  if a bobcat showed up in your living room, most people wouldn’t have a problem shooing it out themselves.  However, if it was a cougar, well, that’s time for someone else to do the removal.  
Baby birds have to walk a very thin line between noise and silence.  The noisier the baby, the more food mom and dad give them.  However, the noisier they are, the more they announce their presence.  Instinctively, a little rustle will set them a-peeping, but a big one will shut them up.  It’s the same with small shadows versus large ones.  And some baby birds can even tell if a shadow is safe (like a goose silhouette) or not (a hawk’s).  
I suppose we all could learn a bit more with silence.  After all, we have two ears and only one mouth so we can hear twice as much as we say.  But really, sometimes it is hard to close that mouth.