What did I hear in the woods?
May 20, 2008 10:02 AM   Subscribe

What did I hear in the woods? Was it a human crying in pain or a non-human animal?

I live in heavily wooded ravines. Think Appalachia but a little north of there. Yesterday in the late morning I heard what sounded a lot like a teenage boy crying out in pain. Repeatedly. For 15 minutes straight. I heard it again this morning, only briefly.

It's very hard to locate sounds among the ridgetops and ravines. The sound might have been coming from a ridge that has a spot where some neighbors shoot off guns, drink beer, etc. So at first I thought someone was beating their kid there and that I should call the sheriff.

But the voice didn't form words, and there was a strange flat quality. If a human had the energy to cry out that loud, you would expect some fervor to it, and maybe some recognizable words, like "Help!" or "No!" So then I thought maybe it was an animal that I hadn't heard yet in 10 years of living here.

I went out on the roads to try to locate the sound and give the sheriff an address, but by then it had stopped. I also went into the woods a bit but didn't see anything unusual.

I'm hesitant to hike over to the suspect ridge, because the only way to that spot is (1) through the woods and (2) trespassing thoroughly. A hasty retreat would be difficult. I will go out into my part of the woods today to check on things.

Summary: Strange crying-out sound from heavily wooded area on fringe of human habitation. Could have been near a home. Not decidedly human. Late morning. Two days in a row. Lowish pitch, like a teenage boy.

Am I freaking out over someone's new dog? Is there some other daytime animal that sounds like a teenage boy crying out wordlessly in slightly robotic pain?

Another thought is that maybe someone with a developmentally disabled teen has moved into the area, and the teen has been upset. With no other voices around. Two days in a row.

It wasn't a female fox, buck in heat, coyote, wounded vulture, or any type of owl that lives here. I know all those sounds. Plus it was 11:30 in the bright, sunny morning.

Any ideas?
posted by PatoPata to Science & Nature (34 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
posted by peep at 10:09 AM on May 20, 2008

Thanks for the suggestion, peep. The sound was lower-pitched than the peacocks I've heard and sounded like a larger animal. That's an interesting idea, though, since someone about a mile away does own peacocks.
posted by PatoPata at 10:15 AM on May 20, 2008

Our old neighbors' wolf-dog cross used to make some hair-raising, human-sounding noises. Ditto for raccoons as well as a bunny that got stuck in the fence (freed without incident.)
posted by bunji at 10:15 AM on May 20, 2008

I'm no sound engineer, but I wonder if the mile distance is short enough to still hear the cry, but takes the high pitch down a bit? We had neighbors (like 4 houses down) who had a peacock when I was a kid. It was really stressful. It sounded like a woman flatly crying "HELPme. HELPme." Robotic, flat - those words in your description are what made me instantly think peacock. Plus, even though we could see the peacock - it would sit on their roof - the sound seemed like it was coming from the completely opposite direction.
posted by peep at 10:20 AM on May 20, 2008

Well I dont know anything about your area, but for example some birds in Australia (I think one is the Sulpher-Crested Cockatoo but my memory may be faulty) have cries that sounds like a child or woman screaming in terror. Bloody unnerving let me tell you.

Run a search for birding sites and information in your area or talk to a local birder or a Forest Service biologist nearby?
posted by elendil71 at 10:24 AM on May 20, 2008

Raccoons make a sound like what you describe, particularly if they're caught in a leg-hold trap.
posted by LN at 10:30 AM on May 20, 2008

I've lived here 10 years and haven't heard the peacocks here before. Usually I hear them when I ride my bike past their place, and their call seems to have 2 distinct pitches. The sound I've heard lately was stronger and deeper and didn't have the two-tone structure I associate with peacocks, though it was a mostly descending sound. Maybe there's a wild hybrid wolf-peacock in the woods!

It's a much deeper sound than I associate with birds. Even the really big birds here that have surprised me, such as a wounded vulture that was crying and staggering through the woods, had a much higher pitch. Except for owls.

Maybe there's a daytime owl call I'm not familiar with. Reaching for my "Bird Sounds of North America" CD...

Just to keep things interesting, some people in this area raise emus.
posted by PatoPata at 10:30 AM on May 20, 2008

posted by cda at 10:32 AM on May 20, 2008

Cats make an odd sound if cornered.
posted by arimathea at 10:35 AM on May 20, 2008

Might have been a mountain lion. They favor that kind of terrain, their populations have been growing and moving closer to human habitations and they aren't nicknamed mountain screamers for nothing.
posted by jamaro at 10:40 AM on May 20, 2008

LN, I think the raccoon idea is entirely feasible. A few months ago I found a trapped raccoon on my property, left to die in a "live" trap, so there seems to be a raccoon trapper around here. And I know that fighting raccoons make some hellish noises, so a trapped and desperate raccoon could, too.

The fox sounds in the previous question are higher-pitched, harsher, and shorter-lived than what I've heard. Though maybe a fox in some sort of trap would also make a different sound, and during the day.

I should have mentioned that my dog was with me and didn't react at all to the sounds.
posted by PatoPata at 10:47 AM on May 20, 2008

I wonder about it being some kind of cat as well. I've lived in places with stray cats that sound exactly like a small child crying (although usually pretty young).
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:48 AM on May 20, 2008

Is there any way for you to record the sound and perhaps link to an mp3 on here?
posted by Flying Squirrel at 10:48 AM on May 20, 2008

I've heard cries that sounded like human babies. They were coming from rabbits that were caught by foxes. It's a spooky sound.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 10:54 AM on May 20, 2008

jamaro, there are unconfirmed reports of cougars in this region--several people have reported them but the DNR has not officially "approved" any. And now that I've heard this recording of a cougar, I'm getting really interested. That sound is closest to what I heard, especially the last call. The sound I heard was a little lower pitched and didn't have the harsh edge, but the shape and duration of the sounds are almost identical.

I've also found some bobcat sounds online, but those calls sound a lot harsher than what I heard. I'll keep looking, because bobcat is probably more likely than cougar, but that cougar recording really is the closest so far.

So now I'm thinking that the cat idea might be the strongest, because the shape of the sound was so like a cougar's. The sound was lower pitched and seemed way too loud for a standard-issue cat, so I'm thinking bobcat or one of those cougars that everyone but the DNR can see.

I'll try to keep my voice recorder handy and see if I can capture the sound next time.
posted by PatoPata at 11:00 AM on May 20, 2008

Screech Owl?
posted by Loto at 11:14 AM on May 20, 2008

Sounds just like the fisher cats we have here in the woods in Western MA.
posted by Framer at 11:18 AM on May 20, 2008

Thanks, Loto, but it wasn't a screech owl. I hear those a lot here.

Framer, I couldn't find a sound clip of a fisher cat, but the sites I saw described its sound as like "a human baby being murdered" or a "shriek," while the sound I heard seems lower pitched.
posted by PatoPata at 11:42 AM on May 20, 2008

I've definitely heard them lower pitched as well. Depends on size, acoustics of the terrain, etc.
posted by Framer at 11:46 AM on May 20, 2008

Fox barks sound like that. A bobcat sounds way more scary- like a woman being murdered- it's a crazy thing to hear in the middle of the night.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 11:47 AM on May 20, 2008

Rabbit cries are probably a little more high pitched and warbly, but Jack Rabbits might be a little closer to the mark. They tend to be lower pitched and have a hoarse quality that could sound like a teenage boy.
posted by jluce50 at 11:53 AM on May 20, 2008

Here's a reminder of the peacock call, in case you hadn't listened to one recently. Peacocks were the culprit in a similar situation I found myself in. Couldn't sleep I was so freaked out.
posted by Stewriffic at 11:55 AM on May 20, 2008

Considering the prevalence of bobcats in Appalachia and the (ostensible) absence of cougars, I'd say keep listening to bobcat calls — I've listened to quite a few now and they vary a lot in pitch and timbre.

(Alternate answer: it's Bigfoot.)

By the way, if you were going for the creepiest Ask MetaFilter question ever, you pretty much succeeded. Something about it being 11:30 AM and sunny makes it even eerier.
posted by decagon at 11:56 AM on May 20, 2008

Sounds like a fisher.

I've also heard young barred owls make a noise very much like the one you describe, in the middle of the night, for at least 10 minutes. Sounds just like a person - very creepy.
posted by Cygnet at 12:09 PM on May 20, 2008

My mom was laying in bed one morning. They live out in the sticks. Rural roads, stupid hick teenagers with big trucks -- the perfect recipe for lots of one-car accidents.

So this one morning, she hears someone screaming "Help! Help!" in the ditch in front of their house. She gets dressed and runs out there, prepared to render aid.

It was, in fact, the neighbor's peacock.

Call here.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:09 PM on May 20, 2008

Thanks, everyone, for your ideas. I've talked to the DNR wildlife guys, and they tended to think bobcat, since there are a lot of them here and they're active now, though it's unusual to hear them during the day. I'll try to get a recording.

And regarding Bigfoot: We do have a local Bigfoot here, but on the other side of a big lake from me. He's been quiet for several years now. During his heyday his presence would first be announced by a pronounced musky smell. Then you'd see the tracks with deep nail marks. And then a few people would see the big guy himself and come back with hazy reports of long black fur and... the CLAWS! My god, the CLAWS!!! The most accepted theory was that he was some sort of escaped Asian bear, if he existed at all.
posted by PatoPata at 12:10 PM on May 20, 2008

I haven't heard anyone mention meth yet, but I have heard a guy on meth scream the same phrase over and over for hours. Maybe it is some 15-year-old appalachian meth addict hiding in the woods?
posted by mattbucher at 1:02 PM on May 20, 2008

I've heard (and seen) bobcats and mountain lions in the wild. Bobcats are waaaaaay louder than you'd possibly think they could be, and do sound decidedly humanish.

Mountain lion screams don't sound like Disney Movies. Those things scream like a heiress in a horror movie, and it carries for very, very, very long distances and you often can't even tell what direction it's coming from. Hearing one at night, alone, in the woods brings all kind of chills and worries, but it's also something of an honor (I think) to get to experience one of these majestic animals in the wild, on their terms.
posted by TomMelee at 1:07 PM on May 20, 2008

Pocupines. No really, pocupines. If they are injured or feel threatened they sound like a sick child crying out. It is the most horrible sound on earth outside of a sick child.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:34 PM on May 20, 2008

I vote bobcat, too. Remember the part in Little House on the Prairie when Pa thinks he hears a woman screaming over at his neighbor's house? He treks over there in the dead of night, and it's all quiet - then finds tracks the next day that indicate the "panther" was watching him from a tree the whole time.

I've heard raccoons scream - but to me, it's pretty high-pitched - didn't sound like a human.
posted by Liosliath at 2:13 PM on May 20, 2008

I've heard a screaming owl a few times (I live in Australia). It was the sort of scream a woman might make in surprised horror as the attacker grabs her from behind. The first time I heard it, I was a little freaked out. Worse yet it then proceeded to travel OVER the house - I had mental images of either witches or some flying monstrosity carrying away a victim (of course by then I knew it was a bird - I had heard of them, hadn't heard them though).

I also used to hear the `breathing owl', which liked to sit near my window as a kid and breath in the sort of ragged way an escaped axe murderer might. Scared me silly until EVENTUALLY someone else heard it and said `Oh, I think that's an owl'.

The other bad one I've heard is when flying foxes (fruit bats) in northern queensland get into an argument, it sounds like someone strangling a baby.
posted by tomble at 3:13 PM on May 20, 2008

Q: Creepiest woods sound in my experience which triggered questions of humans in pain? A: Fox.
posted by Dick Paris at 6:12 PM on May 20, 2008

For posterity: When I lived in the UK, I had a small pond in the back garden, with British frogs. Some times a cat would come by (he was a nice cat, and befriended me) and catch frogs. The frogs would scream, and they sounded exactly like a screaming/crying baby. Kept me on my toes, as I love frogs, and was trying to get the cat to give up hunting them (without discouraging his visits to me).
posted by Goofyy at 3:05 AM on May 21, 2008

Seconding (or fourthing?) the suggestion that it might have been a cougar/bobcat. They can make the most unearthly, eerie noises - some compare them to a crying child, others to a screaming woman. My fire crew has been spiked out on the fireline in wilderness areas far from civilization and actually organized search and rescue efforts after being startled by a cougar calling around dusk. Hearing it actually raised the hair on my arms.
posted by RachelSmith at 2:39 PM on May 23, 2008

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