I am often reminded about all the different aspects of communication in the bush including the silent noises, and how important it is to understand those voices and to see the ‘body language’ of animals, to really appreciate the whole picture in observation.
On my last safari I started to use the ‘noise of silence’ or the ‘language of silence’ to help me understand an all encompassing bush dialogue.
It was a strange journey – listening to what wasn’t making a noise. Changing the parameters (or paradigms) and concentrating on a different set of stimulus. I have done this before – looking between the stars and not at them, and out of the blackness of the night sky comes the shapes and profiles of some of Australia’s most legendary gods – Aboriginal folktales and mythology include a dark constellation – the emu.
The head of the “emu” is the Coal Sack, which is next to the Southern Cross. The emu’s body and tail is in Scorpio. I’ve often played with other shapes – not in the sky but out in the bush. Looking at marks, tracks and other signs, and then trying to ‘see’ the cause. In other words visualise the foot, or the lips and or teeth – or watch, in your mind, the scraping of a tree branch in the wind. You soon establish that if you want to stand any chance of reasonably accurate interpretation – you need to see what you’re looking at as part of a bigger picture.
The same applies to sounds. The sound of silence can be an extremely loud indicator of communication.
I have several references to interpreting silence in behaviour; the first is the obvious and immediate silence of insects when disturbed. I have often spotted a small predator in the grass by following the line of silence as the Katydids and crickets pack up their vocalisation and then restart once the disturbance has passed. Also, elephants become extremely silent when listening – I often ask my guests to chew and listen at the same time!
There are many “all is clear” sounds in the bush. Francolins and other ground birds embark on constant messaging that stops at the arrival of an intruder – like an eagle or a person, perhaps a cat or snake. Most birds and animals shout out warnings, and these are easy identifiers, but just before they do they need what I call a confirmation sense (one that is included as a second opinion) many animals that hear a noise will immediately focus with the ears and ‘sniff’ or use the veromonasal organ to pick up confirmation. It is at this point that silence becomes a great indicator.
I’ve seen animals react to silence, on my last safari two cheetah brothers were lying at rest a couple of metres from my vehicle, they were purring. One of the cheetahs stopped purring and almost instantly, the other cheetah lifted its head to the alert. Then they used their eyes to see a herd of impalas moving through the bush 100 metres away.
An elephant bull grazing alongside some wildebeest stopped to listen, head slightly angled and then twisted his trunk to confirm a noise, and almost instantly the closest wildebeest stopped grazing and looked up. I’m sure they hadn’t heard the noise – they were looking at the elephant.
Silence is as loud as an alarm bark in the bush if you know how to listen for it.