Screams in the Night

Screams in the Night

Since human beings do not see well at night, nocturnal animals are those with which man has the least experience. It is a fact that when one of man's senses is impaired the others become much sharper. By wearing a blindfold for two or three hours a person finds that his hearing becomes much more acute. Campers in the forest at night see very little, but their hearing often gives rise to flights of imagination.

During World War II soldiers standing guard at night magnified each sound they heard, convinced that enemy soldiers were sneaking through the bushes. Occasionally they would respond by opening fire, much to the consternation of the men who were seeking some solace in sleep. The lurking enemy was usually falling leaves.

In North America screams in the night have led to frightful tales that were stretched considerably by imagination. In the early days of American history European settlers moving west were often awakened by a strange and terrifying sound in the dead of night. The scream sounded so horrible, and the bravest of men crouched closer to the fire and attributed it to the devil. It was often described as the cry of a woman being strangled or of someone extremely frightened or in terrible pain.

The Indians believed the scream was the sound made by men of magic who transformed themselves into hideous monsters. These monsters were able to run through the forest, killing people with nothing more than their frightful screams. For over a century this sound was reported over and over again. People who never entered the forest at night scorned these reports, referring to them as "old woodsmen's tales."

Nobody seems to know exactly how, when, or by whom the legend of screams was solved. Scientists now know the screams, which resounded through the forests at night, are the cries of the female mountain lion calling to her mate. Although the mountain lion is quite capable of growling, snarling, and hissing, it usually projects a small voice and makes sounds akin to the chirp of a canary.

But when the female cat is ready to breed, she makes no secret of it and proclaims it loudly to every creature within hearing distance. Since mountain lions are solitary animals, the female's cry must carry far. As for her mating scream, the only real way to describe it is that it sounds terrifying to humans. To the male mountain lion, however, it is a beautiful and inviting sound, and he will follow it to its source.

In a relatively short time the population of the forest will increase by the birth of several kittens. The mating call has served its purpose, and the species lives on.

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth