Listening to the sounds of the night

Grey fox study from a photo by Orphie Barella on Paint my Photo
Watercolor on paper
Margaret Sloan

Last Thursday night, I skipped my normally early bedtime. I was hopped up from watching a movie and stayed up late scrolling the internet for reviews and opinions. Because it wasn’t enough that I watched the damn movie, right?

Honeys, when you get older, don’t mess with your schedule, especially if you already suffer from insomnia. It doesn’t pay. At 12:30 am, I was still staggering around the house, trying not to waken the fiddler while I did half-hearted yoga poses that had been advertised as a natural sleep aid. I was starting to feel drowsy when the barking started.

It got my attention. We live in a neighborhood with rather strict rules about barking dogs. You might hear them bark for their dinner; or to greet their people; or at other dogs during their evening constitutional. There’s one lonely hound who howls in grief if his people leave him home alone for the evenings.

We almost never hear barking dogs after midnight.

But something barked. It was an odd bark, different from the single punctuation of a pet’s ruff-ruff-ruff. These barks came in two parts, split like a semicolon, the first bark short, the second longer. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a dog.

But what was it? I’ve heard coyotes. I know their yipping and yowling, the jostling of voices during the coyote gospel of call and response. This barking was not it.

After a few minutes, another animal answered, this bark coming from the northeast. For around 15 minutes a series of two-note barks traveled back and forth across the valley.

Then suddenly there was barking all around, as if a chorus line of animals were running through the dark. The sound echoed and chuffed; amplified, it filled the spaces between the houses with reverberations as dusty and crisp as old lace.

I live in one of those wildland-urban interfaces that suburbanites prefer when they move to the country. It’s just a regular housing development, with rows of houses along a wide, gently winding road, but trees—oak, pine, cedar—punctuate each lot. We’re surrounded by woods. To the south, a valley grows helter-skelter wild. National forest spreads north, south, east.

We live among wild animals, but they stay hidden. Oh sure, we see and hear the smaller ones, creatures that don’t mind humans for neighbors: scrub jays, acorn woodpeckers, squirrels, quail, jack rabbits. I know deer frequent our gardens and byways, and occasionally someone sees a mountain lion or bear slinking about in the trees. But to my disappointment, this neighborhood hasn’t been the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom I thought it was going to be when we escaped from the ‘burbs.

Still, mountain lion sightings and critters chorusing in the wee hours are not trivial. A few minutes after the barking ended, in the distance to the east, something started repeatedly yipping, high-pitched and resonant. At intervals a call would ring out, a chord of overtones that rose and fell like a wave.

The sound was clearly canid, dog-like. I’ve had friends who live more rurally point out the call of foxes, and of course, YouTube was right there in my hand to do a search on fox calls. I’m pretty certain that early Friday morning, for about 2 hours, gray foxes were calling to each other, to the mountains, to the sky.

Some might think that foxes are bad omens; I’m not one for prophecy. I don’t believe that animals portend disaster or success. They are just animals and some of us are fortunate to share our world with them.

So bark on through the night, gray foxes. I’ll probably be awake to hear you.





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