Backcountry Science: Things That Scream Bloody Murder In The Night

It’s that time of year again: “cougar” season, where residents and visitors all across Appalachia report hearing a mountain lion, cougar, or panther scream out in the night.

Tales like this are common across the mountains, especially from hikers spending the night deep in the woods only to be awoken by the sound of what could easily be a person screaming in the distance. It’s common for people to attribute these sounds to cougars – even if they never actually saw an animal – since it’s the most dramatic scenario we could imagine. A majestic, rarely seen predator lurking in the woods and making a primeval sound is intimidating, after all.

There’s just one problem with that scenario, though: cougars aren’t common in Appalachia, if they exist at all. In fact, there’s a very high likelihood that there’s no breeding population of cougars anywhere in our mountains, even as lone individuals occasionally wander from the West. And we can state with confidence that there’s no such thing as “black panthers” anywhere in the Appalachians, since creatures like those never even occurred here to begin with. We’ve written about this before, and you can learn more about the rationale for why – and learn what people really see instead – in that post.

But since it seems like everyone and their brother or cousin has a story of seeing a blurry animal or hearing a scream in the woods from afar and just “knowing” that it was a cougar, we’d like to turn our attention to those tales again in this post. Specifically, how likely is it that the scream you heard in the woods was a cougar? Not likely at all. For starters, cougars vocalizing (or screaming) is an uncommon thing, even where cougars themselves are common. It’s not something a cougar does on a regular basis. And in addition, there are a number of other, less threatening animals in our mountains that do make common sounds that can be mistaken for a scream. We’ll outline a few of these below:

I. Red Fox

You might laugh at the notion that something as small as a fox could make a terrifying scream, but before you do, check out the video below. What you’re hearing there is often called the “Vixen’s Scream,” a type of contact call meant to alert potential mates at long distances. It was long thought that this call was only used by females, but males can also use this call when looking for possible mates. Regardless, it’s the kind of call that can make a person nearly jump out of their skin.

Foxes also have a surprisingly complex vocabulary, beyond the call discussed above. These other vocalizations are used for a variety of reasons, from fighting to alerting others of threats, and can all be easily mistaken for a larger and more sinister animal lurking in the night. You can check out examples of these calls at the video below.

II. Barn Owl

We know what you’re thinking: “how in the world could a barn owl be mistaken for a cougar?” It’s easier than you might think. Unlike other owls, the Barn Owl doesn’t “hoot.” Instead, it gives off a variety of screaming and/or hissing calls, which can easily make your hair stand up if a nearby owl calls suddenly in the middle of the night. It’s not uncommon for these critters to be mistaken for a screaming cat or even a person in distress. Check out some examples below.

III. Bobcat

Finally, that “cougar” you heard might really be the Appalachian animal most commonly mistaken for a larger mountain lion: a common bobcat. Like cougars, bobcats don’t call all that frequently, but they do occasionally vocalize with sounds that can easily be turned into a cougar with very little imagination. Some examples are below (for obvious reasons, never approach or attempt to catch a bobcat – the one featured in the first video is kept by an experienced professional as a rescue animal):

So, Did I Hear A Cougar?

It’s almost always a safe bet to say no. Chances are high that the sound you heard in the mountains was not a cougar but something much more common, no matter how much you’d like it to be. However, being common doesn’t mean being uninteresting. Even if you heard a distant fox or owl at night, you should still consider it to be a neat experience, and you’ve gotten to encounter a part of the Appalachian woods that’s every bit as wild as a cougar might be. As with everything that goes *bump* (or screams) in the night, a little bit of skepticism goes a long way before jumping to the most sensational explanation.

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