Using Distress Sounds to Kill More Predators

Understanding why predators respond to the distress screams of their prey can make you a better hunter — or at least a more informed one.

Using Distress Sounds to Kill More Predators

To hungry coyotes, the distress screams of prey animals such as this muskrat mean only one thing — a warm meal is only minutes away. Photo: iStock/ironman100

I vividly remember the first time I picked up an injured rabbit. I was grouse hunting with my dad and, being an equal opportunity rifleman, I’d put the bunny down with one not-so-well-placed shot from my single-shot .22 LR rifle. The blood-curdling screams — the rabbit’s followed by mine — left a lasting impression. 

There are abounding theories explaining why prey animals squeal when in the clutches of a predator. Obviously, you don’t have to look beyond the pain and terror inflicted by being ripped apart by tooth or talon to gain insight into such a response. But is it possible there are more provocative, evolutionary, even altruistic, reasons for this age-old response? 

It’s true that you don’t need to understand the biological intricacies of predator/prey relationships at the fundamental level to be a successful predator hunter. But, on the other hand, it’s these symbiotic interactions we predator hunters exploit, and knowing why animals react in predictable manners can give insight into understanding what makes them tick, and how you can take advantage of certain behaviors. Armed with this knowledge, we know that the most effective tool in the predator hunter’s bag of tricks is a mouth call or electronic caller that mimics the sound of a food source. To a hunting coyote, fox or bobcat, the screams of a prey animal in distress mean an easy meal is just moments away. And, to some extent, they have no choice but to respond. In the wild, competition for protein is fierce, and the hunter who hesitates often goes hungry. 

So, just for fun, let’s examine the reasons why prey animals scream, why and how predators respond, and how we, as hunters, can benefit from this information.


The Obvious Explanation

The most obvious explanation for why animals scream is to vocalize the terror, fear and pain of being ripped apart limb from limb when attacked by a predator. Or it might be in response to another injury, such as the rabbit I wounded in the beginning of this article, or an animal caught in the jaws of a steel trap. In any case, these distress cries trigger a “dinner bell” response in predators. They know from experience that the prey animal’s physical well-being has been compromised, and the rabbit, bird or rodent that might have escaped their clutches on even ground is now easy prey. 

This is most likely a learned response. As a youngster — say a coyote pup — learns to hunt, its parents introduce it to the art of chasing, catching and killing prey. Adults, in fact, will often capture and injure prey animals for the benefit of providing these lessons. Each time the pup hears the prey species scream — precipitated by these attacks — it reinforces the knowledge that these vocalizations mean a warm meal. 

Predictably, predators typically response to distress screams in relation to their status on the food chain. Those on the upper rungs — adult coyotes in most circumstances — are likely to charge in and capitalize on the situation, securing the meal and then guarding it from intruders. Smaller predators such as foxes, bobcats and birds of prey must exercise caution to avoid becoming collateral damage. If the prey animal has been killed by a larger predator, an element of danger exists, and caution must be exercised. But the need to eat still drives them to respond.


Community vs. the Individual

OK, so the most obvious reaction to attack is to vocalize terror and pain. But could there be a more selfless, evolutionary reason for this response? Is it possible prey animals are hard-wired to act for the good of the community — in a selfless sacrifice to preserve their kind? This theory holds that prey animals react altruistically to warn others of their species of danger — providing the opportunity for them to escape, while sacrificing their own life. To quote Mr. Spock from an early Star Trek episode: “The good of the many outweighs the good of the one.” (Captain Kirk disagreed, if you recall.) 

Simply defined, altruism is an attitude or way of behaving marked by unselfish concern for the welfare of others — the belief that acting for the benefit of others is right and good. In animal communities, behavior that often appears to be detrimental to the survival of an individual might contribute to the survival of others. Vocalizations by social prey species that warn others of the approach of predators, for example, are often regarded as altruistic because they might help most animals survive while simultaneously drawing the attention of the predator to the individual giving the warning. 

Taken a step further, the distress cries of an animal in the jaws of a predator might be a desperate, final altruistic act, even though that animal’s outcome is almost certain death. A predator’s response is predictable, immediate and focused, and the distress cries of the victim provide warning and escape for other members of its community — the individual is sacrificed for the good of the community. Mother Nature, in fact, cares very little for the individual. It’s the overall health of the species, the species community and the environment they occupy that takes precedent over individual needs and survival.


The Art of Escape

What about a more selfish explanation? One that prioritizes individual survival. Self-preservation is a strong motivator, hard-wired in all animals. It requires that they fight for life to the bitter end. And this behavior might provide yet another theory for why they scream. What if prey animals scream to confuse or frighten their attacker? Or maybe even to attract other predators! But why would a rabbit, for instance, trying to fight off certain death from one predator want to attract the attention of more predators? The answer might be a desperate attempt at escape. Is it possible that distress screams are intended to trigger a chase response in all predators within earshot, and that the confusion and competition of multiple predators (in some cases fighting to steal a meal or protect their kill) might provide an opportunity for escape? Far-fetched? Maybe. 

Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan conducted a series of experiments to analyze a chemical response in prey fish that were being attacked by predatory fish. It was discovered that the minnows they were studying released chemical pheromones into the water when they were attacked, and those chemicals triggered an attack response in predatory fish. The scientists hypothesized that an animal’s chances of escape increased when a second predator approached and tried to steal the prey from the first predator — that the release of the pheromones was a defense mechanism to elicit escape. In fact, their experiments upheld this theory: When minnows in the wild released chemical alarm substances they escaped from pike more often than minnows without alarm substances. 

This behavior has also been observed in birds and mammals. A study at Point Reys Bird Observatory in California tested the hypothesis that prey distress screams facilitate escape. In seven trials, they observed multiple avian predators responding to distress screams, in some cases chasing each other. They surmised that the rapid approach of other predators would be key to enabling the prey to escape.

Hunters who better understand the relationships between predators and the prey they pursue stand a better chance of cashing in on more prime fur.
Hunters who better understand the relationships between predators and the prey they pursue stand a better chance of cashing in on more prime fur.

What Does It All Mean?

Interesting, yes. But what value do these theories hold in terms of making us better predator hunters? If you do a significant amount of predator hunting, you’re already capitalizing on these behaviors even though you probably haven’t devoted much conscious thought to the biology of predator/prey relationships. You know empirically that all animals react and respond in predictable manners — and you take advantage of this knowledge by exploiting their weaknesses. That might mean using decoys to dupe waterfowl, grunt calls to lure whitetail bucks into bow range, purrs and clucks to attract tom turkeys … or the screams of a rabbit in distress to bring a wily coyote or bashful bobcat into rifle range. 

For whatever reason prey animals scream, the pitiful sounds they make trigger a dinner bell response in predators that can be used to your advantage. Knowing this, you also know that mimicking the cries of prey animals in distress is a deadly tactic for drawing in predators sure-kill close. And knowing that competition for food is fierce in the wilds, you’d better be prepared for action every time you put tube to mouth. 

The bottom line is that animals — predators and prey — react in predictable ways. It’s these behaviors we exploit, and hunting tactics should reflect some knowledge of these symbiotic predator/prey relationships. So, there you have it: The rabbit screams, the predator responds and we fur hunters take advantage of this age-old relationship. And that’s why hiding in the bushes, screaming at the top of your lungs — imitating the cries of a rabbit in distress — makes perfect sense.


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