Do You Hear What I Hear?

by Rex Burress

Aside from that old song title, perhaps the lead line should be, "I don't hear what they hear." Much of nature seems to operate in silence, at least on levels undetectable to our range of hearing.

I thought of the mystery of animal communication as I sat by the Forebay at Oroville one November evening waiting for the sunset. Clouds covered the sun, but there was promise of a breakthrough at five o'clock, and I was ready with my camera on a tripod as I waited in the car. Suddenly, it seemed time for the evening coots to transfer to the West Forebay after foraging in the smaller north sector all day. A silent signal of understanding seemed to have been struck, and about fifty swam together full speed, under the narrow peninsula bridge, and out into the wide expanse of open water.

Apparently they feel safer to rest on the more open spaces, and I had seen the same procedure before during their winter presence in that sector. Perhaps they felt comfort in numbers, and there seemed to be a leader, but I had no idea how they chose the captain, conveyed their thoughts, or decided the time. During the day you can hear coot clucks as they probe the shallows, but this assemblage had simply struck forth for a destination in a silent ceremony of mystery.

The sunset was evolving into a brilliant affair of "tangerine-colored clouds," as the local paper described it, and spiraling high over the lake was a flock of several hundred gulls, wheeling and dashing about in a great unorganized circle as if enjoying the sky show before proceeding onward.

Every evening, of every November evening every year, the gulls form in flocks to fly to Lake Oroville for the night. It is a magnificent procession, perhaps ten thousand Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, maybe Thayer's Gulls, flying in duck-like "V" formations in family-like style of two or three dozen in each group, headed directly for Oroville Dam. Sometimes they do that spiraling act in front of the dam, perhaps to gain altitude to sail over that 900-foot structure in order to fly to the other side of the lake for a nighttime gathering. You never hear a sound. If they are talking about any decisions, I cannot hear it, partly maybe attributed to my poor hearing, or maybe they speak on a different wavelength.

In any event, they seem to choose leaders and times to make that ten-mile pilgrimage from far down the river where they forage on dead salmon all day long. The river is full of dead Chinooks at that time of year, and the daily process seems like some kind of system as the early birds next morning proceed to the nearest salmon deposit, and the rest follow, and like a folding wave, move on down the river, spreading out in proper numbers until all the beaches are occupied. Seldom do you hear a sound, although a noisy individual may strut and squawk over a gravel bar like he owns it during the day. The vultures that lurk around the edges to help in the clean-up are even more silent, and it seems I've heard they are without vocal cords, as is the pelican, although they can both hiss loudly. The domestic Muscovy duck is also a hisser.

Although there are bird-song experts who can readily identify a singing bird without seeing it, during the winter most of those brush birds are silent. The tiny gray Bushtits are always busily scouring the low canopies, and it is amazing how they move from site to site in silence. Suddenly, one bird will dart away - the leader? - and a long string of maybe 40 will follow. They flutter through the foliage like a shower of wind-blown leaves.

Then the silent goldeneyes and Bufflehead ducks slip silently into the river shallows every winter about mid-October. I look forward to them. They are so jaunty and bright - even on gray foggy days - so uplifting in the lively life they lead. They merge with the mergansers to form a silent flotilla plying the river for a quick meal and then loaf most of the day. Though roaring windstorms thrash the river, and weather pelts down, they are serene in their stylish lifestyles.

Though distant flocks of trailing Canada Goose strings often honk in a plaintive tone echoing the call of the wild, most flying waterfowl flocks, especially ducks, streak by in unvocalized passage. Only the whistling of the goldeneye wings denotes their flight, and sometimes Mallards quack noisily in their take-off. Snow Geese are perhaps the most vocal of the waterfowl - a hearing and visual experience you will note and treasure if you encounter 500,000 at Gray Lodge Wildlife Area!

At least, that is all I hear, but I am always haunted by the fact that they may speak in foreign tongues and mental telepathy outside my understanding.

I can only visualize the assemblage of waterfowl on the Arctic tundra when summer family life has ended and the birds nervously watch the skies for storms. Units unite and by some signal take to the sky for the long journey south when the proper time arrives. How long they fly and where they stop - and routes they take - are modes locked up in privacy ... and silence ... as they continue the circular pattern of life laid down long ago. They hear what they hear in the way of the wild that is apart from man. May it always be so.

2002 Rex Burress
November 30, 2002