Outside/Inbox: Do Bears Hoot?
[Editor's note: this episode first aired in October 2021]
Every other Friday, the Outside/In podcast team answers one listener question about the natural world.
This week’s question comes from Ryan in New Hampshire.
"My grandma and my great aunt used to argue over a hooting sound that we'd hear in the woods.... Sometimes there'd be a response back that sounded a little different, and they used to argue if it was an owl or a bear and this would go on for hours. So I'm just wondering if you can tell us, do bears 'hoot' in New Hampshire and Vermont? Thank you.”
“Yes, the classic, the classic bears hooting question. It's very funny. It's been going on for decades."
Dave Mance III should know. As a long-time New England nature writer, he tackled this same question back in 2008 for the Bennington Banner. For his article, he spoke with two pre-eminent bear experts who were not reticent about debunking the myth about bears hooting: N.H.'s own Ben Kilham and Dr. Lynn Rogers, founder and principal biologist of the North American Bear Center, both agree with N.H.'s Fish and Game bear biologist Andy Timmins: "The answer is no. Bears don’t hoot."
This is a familiar question for Timmins, too: "For whatever reason, there is kind of this folklore myth in New England that bears hoot. It's very common. Multiple times a year I get asked that question."
In order to verify if this persistent myth about bears hooting was really grounded in New Hampshire and Vermont folklore, we checked in with a bear biologist from a different region.
As Bear Management Program Coordinator with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, David Telesco was surprised to hear about the hooting bear myth. "The idea that a bear would hoot...it's an that's an odd perception," he said. "I've never heard of this before today. New one on me."
Who Cooks For You?
So who is hooting? The universal conclusion is that the sound that Ryan's family is hearing, is a barred owl.
"I'm not an expert on owls, but I will say what it sounds like they're describing is a barred owl," says Telesco. Timmins points out that the call of the barred owl, which are very abundant, is often described as sounding like someone saying, "who cooks for you!" You'll hear them year-round, mostly at night.
"The tell is right in the word that they're using," Mance observes. "It sounds like a hoot. Well, you know, owls hoot. It's Occam's razor: the simplest solution is usually the correct one. Sure enough, if it’s a hoot, it’s an owl!"
But looking closely at the original question, was the listener asking about the first hoot, or was she trying to figure out if it was a bear that was responding?
Telesco has a theory about the responding creature, who was not making as distinct a "who cooks for you?" call of the barred owl. "The juvenile barred owls actually take some practice to get their 'who, who cooks for you...' down. If you've heard the juvenile barred owls, honestly, it sounds like a monkey. It's likely that what they're hearing is younger owls responding to a mature owl's call."
Bears Will Be Bears (Not Owls)
But what sounds do bears make? If you were to surprise one in the woods, "they might bluff charge," says Telesco. "They might huff and pop their jaws ... there's not a bunch of the Hollywood growling and things like that. It's just them exhibiting some behavior that they feel like is enough to tell us that we've invaded their personal space."
"They really don't have a really wide range of vocalizations," says Timmins. "And most of them are formed by huffing air and kind of these guttural sounds. None of these bears are really being aggressive, and all these vocalizations are really ways to avoid an aggressive encounter."
But it's actually not even likely you would even come upon a bear in the woods of New Hampshire while hiking. "It is really rare to see a wild black bear in the forest because they like thick, thick cover," says Telesco. "They don't like us, and they could smell us for over a mile away. So as we're approaching, they're likely either gone or hunkered down."
"They have the best sense of smell of any land mammal. I think it's seven times better than a bloodhound, which is supposed to be 300 times better than a person. So a lot of their communication is scent," says Telesco. "But there's really not much vocalization."
A sense of wonder
Have we given our listener's family peace from years of debating this sound? Dave Mance III has a philosophical take: "I kind of look back fondly on the myth. It spoke to wonder... having said that, it's kind of complicated because we are living in times where truth matters."
"That is kind of the two ways I can see the issue. And on any given day, I will either defend the truth and the fact that they are owls vociferously. Or if I hear somebody talking about hooting bears, I'll just smile and move on."
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