Why is it that so many humans claim that nonhuman animals make no noise in the forest? I have read and heard this claim in multiple places, and it always astonishes me. Do these people think that bears tiptoe daintily through the woods like ballerinas? Do they think forests are silent places? And most critically: Have these people ever been in a forest before?
Perhaps the myth of the silent forest survives because so few humans are willing to still themselves and wait for the sounds of the forest to resume. Humans are predators, after all, and most wildlife fears us. Birds, frogs, and mammals either run away or go still and silent when humans come crashing through the underbrush, because we are a threat.
I was thinking about this as I hand-fed chickadees in the woods today. I’ve been doing this regularly for over three years now, and it’s helped me learn to quiet down. When you start hand-feeding chickadees you need to be very still, or you’ll spook them. Once they know you as a good source of sunflower seed and have grown comfortable with you, they’ll clamor for you to stop your walk and pull out a handful of seed. Or so I’ve found.
Even though the chickadees don’t mind so much now if I move, stillness has become a habit. And from my place of stillness I hear, first, the babble of the creek, a breeze in the dry leaves of the beech, a creaky tree limb. Over these non-animal sounds are layered the purring sounds of chickadee wings and the “dee-dee-dee”calls, plus other, less familiar calls. Once, near the vernal pool, I heard what I thought must be a raccoon or mink – the rustling of dry leaves was so loud. I laughed silently at myself when it emerged and I saw that it was . . . a mouse. Anything sounds big when it’s shuffling through dry autumn leaves.
Browsing deer, drumming pileated woodpeckers, spiders wrapping their prey in silk, ravens conversing around an animal carcass: I’ve seen or heard them all when standing quiet and still. Once I spent half an hour watching a porcupine gnawing the ends of blackberry canes. Another time, I paused on a fallen log over a swampy stream to hear a pack of coyotes – probably a family with cubs – romping and playing, and perhaps sharing a meal, nearby. Since a woman had recently been killed by coyotes while hiking, I skedaddled, still thankful for having heard them.
More recently a Northern Flicker – a bird I hear often but had never seen before – alighted on a tree near where I was feeding chickadees. I got to watch it for 10 minutes as it moved between the tree and the ground, foraging for bugs and beetles. It was gorgeous, and much larger than I’d expected.
Today, however, was extra special. As I stood feeding the chickadees, not too far from the vernal pool, I heard a shuffling of leaves. At first I wondered whether it was a hunter – rifle season starts in Vermont today and our land is not posted. But then I could tell it was multiple animals, probably a flock of wild turkeys. I twisted my upper body as slowly as possible, and saw about 15 turkeys across the creek from me, heading my way. With my feet facing the pool and my face to the creek, I was very uncomfortable, but determined to miss as little of their procession as possible.
And it was a procession. The turkeys made their slow, ponderous way, one by one crossing the creek, one by one climbing the bank. They resembled nothing so much as the Skeksis in Jim Hensen’s movie The Dark Crystal. Finally I had to untwist myself, and slowly, slowly turned back around. At first I thought I’d spooked them – they paused and clucked a bit. But they resumed their progress, passing by not more than 20 feet to my left side.
It was weird to hear this procession of wild animals behind my back. Even though I knew they were turkeys, the sound still raised the hackles on my neck. As they approached the vernal pool, they startled a ruffed grouse, which leapt up into a tree to wait for their passing, and hopped back down after 10 minutes or so. It was nice not to be the one doing the startling, for once.
After that I fed the chickadees a bit longer, then returned the way I had come, so as not to startle the turkeys.