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Listening for what animals can tell us

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I know that animals talk; I saw him - black tip on the tail, reddish flank - and he saw me. I had turned on the porch light, and the whole snow-covered backyard was illuminated. He looked at me, or at least at the light, and ran.

Opossums never run when we turn on the light. They forage for sunflower-seeds spilled from the bird feeder, oblivious to all else. Raccoons look warily about, but they stick around, unhooking the suet feeder from the post, or, in summer, sipping the remains of hummingbird nectar from the feeder they've knocked to the ground.

But the fox stared at me with intelligent eyes, as if to say something.

Days earlier, we had seen his tracks in the snow. We saw squirrel tracks, too - a few feet from our back door. The fox tracks met the squirrel tracks in a great upheaval of snow and fur.

We also saw a moth, fluttering by the light. A big, brown moth, hatched too early.

It was snowing hard: large, swirling flakes. We got three inches that night. I thought of the Polyphemus cocoons stored in our garage. They were still intact when I checked - lightweight, hairy, and tan-colored. Little hardened blankets against the cold, bearing secrets.

One summer we heard loud, trilling cries from the forest. At first we thought some poor creature was being murdered - slowly. It happened night after night; we would shut our bedroom windows and shudder.

Then a friend found some baby raccoons in a tree, and we took our kids to see them. The babies made the same noise; so finally, we knew.

In an old copy of "The Illustrated Library of the Natural Sciences" there is an article about the "Poor-me-one." A bird of the goatsucker family, native to South America, it reputedly makes a sound like a lost soul wailing. A woman who had heard the sound said she hoped never to hear it again.


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