Archive for the 'animals' Category

The Mysterious Ticking Noise

Friday, April 27th, 2012

This is the bed where my wife and I sleep. I often sit there reading (okay; or playing Draw Something) for a little bit before I turn out the lights.

It was a few nights ago that I first noticed the mysterious ticking noise. Picture me sitting on the right side of the above photo. Linda was on the left side, asleep. As I sat there, I became aware that I was hearing a soft, rhythmic ticking, barely audible, apparently coming from the wall above her head. It was the sort of creaking-house noise one hears from time to time and immediately dismisses.

Except this time I noticed something strange: The noise was repeating. Every 15 seconds or so, a rapid-fire series of clicks could be (barely) heard. Each series of clicks lasted a second or two, starting off fast, then slowing toward the end.

Random household creaks are nothing special. But creaks that exhibit a repeating pattern? What was that?

I leaned over, careful not to wake Linda, and after some cupped-ear investigation I concluded that the sound was coming from the lower right-hand corner of that painting you can see in the photo above. The sound was clearly audible when my ear was within a few inches of that point, but faded when I moved away.

I was intrigued, but I couldn’t figure out what the sound was, so after a few minutes I gave up and went to sleep.

But the next night I heard it again. And when I heard it again on the third night, I mentioned it to Linda.

She was skeptical. This sound was really quiet, and she wasn’t hearing it.

I told her where to put her head, and after a minute she said she thought she heard something, maybe. But she also raised the possibility, half facetiously, that maybe I was imagining it. (TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?)

The next day, when she was out of the house and things were quiet, I went into the bedroom. Sure enough, the corner of the picture was still ticking. After some experimenting with the my phone’s Voice Memos app and Audacity, I was able to get some decent recordings.

Here’s a two-minute stretch of the best one:

The Mysterious Ticking Noise

I came up with two theories for what it might be:

1. It was some kind of sympathetic vibration from a mechanical rumbling too low for me to hear. Some piece of machinery or electric equipment (or something) was sending out a vibration that just happened to be resonating just right with the wood and glass of the picture frame, causing it to make that audible clicking sound.

2. It was an insect of some kind. I’d heard of a “death watch beetle” that supposedly makes a tapping sound in walls; maybe that’s what this was?

Further research has pushed me very much into the latter camp. I think it’s a beetle (or a beetle larva, or some other bug).

Here’s my reasoning: A mechanical source would likely be very regular in the timing of its clicks. A biological source, on the other hand, would show more variation. And these clicks do, indeed, show variation in their timing. Using Audacity I was able to get extremely accurate timing of the clicks, which I put in a Google spreadsheet. It shows the following:

  • The number of clicks in each set varies. Most of the sets featured 22 clicks each. About a third of them, though, only had 21 clicks, while one had 23.
  • The duration of each set, and the interval between sets, also varied. The shortest set lasted 1.263 seconds, while the longest lasted 1.612 seconds. The shortest set-to-set interval I measured was 9.350 seconds. The longest was 13.811 seconds.
  • There were some interesting correlations in the numbers that seemed to support a biological explanation. For example, the longest sets of clicks tended to come after the longest interval from the previous set. That is, a clicking bug that had rested a little longer was primed to produce a more vigorous, longer-lasting set of clicks.

It was neat to be able to examine the clicks with Audacity. By zooming in I could see lots of detail. I’ve included some screenshots below; if you click on them you can see larger versions.

Here’s a view of the whole 2-minute recording. Each set of clicks is represented by a thick line. You can see how the sets of clicks have slightly variable intervals between them:

Here I’ve zoomed in to show three sets of clicks. The individual clicks have started to separate. You can see an interesting shape to each set: The first clicks are quieter (as indicated by the shorter vertical lines representing those clicks). Then they become louder, then quieter, then louder again at the end of the set.

Here I’ve zoomed in to show a single set of clicks. You can clearly see how the clicks slow down over the course of the set, and how they get louder, then quieter, then louder again.

Here I’ve zoomed in to show five successive clicks from within a single set. At this scale something new becomes visible: Each click is actually three clicks. There’s an initial relatively loud click, then a quieter click an instant later, then a barely detectable third click an instant after that.

Here I’ve zoomed in tight on a single click. You can really see that “triple click” nature of the click, and can make fine measurements of the timing (the scale at the top is reading in ten-thousandths of a second). There’s the first (loud) click, then there’s a quieter click 2.4 milliseconds later, and a much quieter click 1.4 milliseconds after that. I wonder what’s causing those. Are they echoes? The sound of secondary impacts, as insect bodyparts strike against each other? Artifacts of my recording process? I have no idea.

I verified that whatever it is is actually inside the picture or its frame; when I moved the painting to the other side of the room, the sound continued to emanate from the painting’s lower righthand corner. We’ve had that picture and frame for just over 25 years, which I know because I bought it for Linda for our third anniversary, and we recently celebrated our 28th. So the wood and paper and fabric in there has had time to get good and old, and presumably tasty to wood-eating insects.

From the Death watch beetle article at Wikipedia:

The death watch beetle, Xestobium rufovillosum, is a woodboring beetle. The adult beetle is 7 millimetres (0.28 in) long, while the xylophagous larvae are up to 11 mm (0.43 in) long.

To attract mates, these woodborers create a tapping or ticking sound that can be heard in the rafters of old buildings on quiet summer nights. They are therefore associated with quiet, sleepless nights and are named for the vigil (watch) kept beside the dying or dead, and by extension the superstitious have seen the death watch as an omen of impending death.

The term “death watch” has been applied to a variety of other ticking insects including Anobium striatum, some of the so-called booklice of the family Psocidae, and the appropriately named Atropos divinatoria and Clothilla pulsatoria.

If you’ve read this far you really owe it to yourself to view the video at of Xestobium rufovillosum making its ticking noise.

Although the sound produced by that beetle is similar to my mysterious ticking noise, the pattern is not a perfect match, making me suspect I’m dealing with a different species. One possible suspect is described this way in my copy of Evans and Hogue’s Field Guide to Beetles of California:

The Deathwatch or Furniture Beetle (Anobium punctatum) (2.7 to 4.5 mm) apparently arrived from Euorpe as a stowaway in imported furniture. It is now established along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America.

I’m going to pester my online friend Charley Eisemen, co-author of what may well be my favorite field guide ever (which is saying a lot, given the way I feel about field guides), Tracks & Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates. If anyone’s likely to be able to track down the identity of my mysterious noise-maker based only on the sound, it’s Charley Eisemen.

Finally, if you’ve made it this far, and if you’re somehow not among the 125 million who’ve seen it already, I give you the original Mysterious Ticking Noise:

Update: Lang Elliot, co-author of the awesome book Songs of Insects, was kind enough to respond to an email I sent him as follows:


That’s a longhorn beetle larva chewing on wood inside the frame. Before transforming into adults, they are big white grubs with black heads and mouthparts, yummy to eat for woodpeckers at least:

Google Images link


Nature Documentary Done Right

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

I had not seen this (unlike everyone else), until commenter Anithil pointed it out to me. In honor of her, then:

Dino Puppet Eats Horsey Puppet for _Breakfast_!

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Not impressed with Horsey Puppet? Okay. I give you Dino Puppet! Raawwwwrrrrr!!

Courtesy of Phil Plait.

Joey the Horsey Puppet

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

I meant to watch the TED Talk video that Boing Boing linked to a while ago, about the amazingly lifelike horse puppet, because it sounded intriguing, but I got caught up in other things and forgot. Then the LA Times (yay, dead-tree media!) had a cool review today (‘War Horse’ has a star of a steed), and that reminded me, so I went back and found it. I’m glad I did:

If you’re looking for a shorter version, this trailer for the play is pretty compelling, too:

Novella on Bedbugs AND Meta-cognition (*Swoon*)

Friday, December 31st, 2010

Oh, man-crush Steven Novella, how do I love thy postings at Neurologica? Let me count the ways…

Um, okay: two. That is, I love the latest post at Neurologica (The Coming Bedbug Plague) two ways: It is about an insect (which is a topic I’m lately fairly obsessed with) and it links the insect story with a pithy observation about humans’ mistaken belief in the inevitability of progress.

Here’s my favorite bit from the part about progress:

My initial surprise at hearing this story, I think, reflects an inherent progressivist bias in our thinking. We tend to think of human history as making inexorable progress. This bias is reinforced, especially since the industrial revolution, by the fact that science and technology has been relentlessly progressive. The problem is in the default assumption that all change is progressive – whatever current system we have must be better than the old system because newer is better.

Human history, however, is more complex than our default assumptions. Sometimes history is regressive. And sometimes it is cyclical. Not all current trends will extrapolate indefinitely into the future. Today’s fad is not always the wave of the future.

In my mind bedbugs were a problem of pre or early industrial societies, and were no longer an issue given modern hygiene and pest-control. I associated bedbugs with an earlier age, and it just seemed incongruous that they could return in the 21st century. But the details tell a different story.

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned the recent insect obsession on, but you can find evidence of it, if you’re interested, at my local nature-y blog, Carp Without Cars. Or you can examine my recently uploaded images at Or you can watch this video I took in my bedroom the other day, of a case-bearing carpet moth caterpillar, and contemplate the fact that taking that video was kind of the high point of my week:

Or you could just take my word for it: I’m kind of into bugs lately.

How Barack Obama Is In Fact a Tiny Pony

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Barbara of Spasms of Accommodation is no longer a hermit in the Georgia swamp, it turns out. Now she’s a support engineer in Austin. But then, Thoreau didn’t spend all that long at Walden Pond, either.

Anyway, courtesy of her latest posting, I was led to this item by Frank Chimero: There is a Horse in the Apple Store.

This part totally made me think of Onan/Conner (who is as famously opposed to reproduction as he is committed to Apple products):

But there are no children in the Apple Store, for the same reason you would not see a child in a jewelry store: things are small and fragile and expensive and shiny. And if you have a child, you probably can not afford Apple products.

I also liked this part toward the end:

Since then, John and I have a term called a “tiny pony.” It is a thing that is exceptional that no one, for whatever reason, notices. Or, conversely, it is an exceptional thing that everyone notices, but quickly grows acclimated to despite the brilliance of it all.

Cell phones and the ability to make a phone call to anyone from anywhere is a tiny pony. The instant gratification provided by being able to have almost any question answered immediately is a tiny pony. Airplanes are tiny ponies. A black president, whose father is from Kenya and mother is from Kansas, being elected President of the United States is a tiny pony.

Bug Girl’s Pubic Lice

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

Having spent a day contemplating the creepiness that is Sarah Palin’s hypertrophied self-esteem, I needed something to cleanse my mental palate, so to speak. Fortunately, the newly discovered Bug Girl’s Blog had just the thing: I have pubic lice in my mailbox.

As much as that sounds like a euphemism, it isn’t.

Ant 220 on the Night Sky

Friday, September 14th, 2007

It’s a weird paradox of my life: I’ve lived under some of the darkest skies in the country (at 9,000 feet in the Eastern Sierra), as well as under some of the brightest (in Los Angeles). And while I’ve been an amateur astronomer for most of my adult life, spanning both those times, my interest in stargazing has waxed and waned in inverse (and perverse) relationship with the darkness of the sky under which I’ve lived. That is, I’ve been more interested in looking at the sky at precisely those times when it was least visible, and vice versa.

I think this says something about human nature. Or at least about my nature.

Anyway, the above YouTube clip from Ant 220 of Pinky’s Ant Farm expresses quite succinctly and profoundly how I feel about the sky. Highly recommended.

Funny Cat Pictures

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Courtesy of Paul at work, and then Beck (curse you), here are a bunch of funny cat pictures as helpfully stolen and reposted collated by the folks at Meme Cats.

Never shy about stealing and reposting collating myself, I herewith enclose a few of my favorites:

Happy Feet Good. Casino Royale, Eh, Okay

Sunday, November 26th, 2006

Capsule review of my holiday cinema-going:

Happy Feet: Unexpectedly awesome, and proof that you don’t have to be a kid to enjoy a CGI animal movie. Casino Royale: Expectedly just a Bond movie, and confirmation that yes, I really did outgrow that genre sometime in late adolescence.

Dressing Up As Animals

Friday, November 17th, 2006

A fun little link, with photos reposted from Swiss design student Geoffrey Cottenceau’s thesis project, in which he dresses himself up as various animals using common items from the closet. Um, it’s more impressive than it sounds.

More of Cottenceau’s cool projects at

Thanks to Hiro for the link. Podcast 18

Saturday, May 27th, 2006

I actually recorded this a week ago Friday, but didn’t get around to posting until now. Apologies for the delay. Anyway: podcast 18.

In this installment:

  • The recent announcement by the Cornell team of this past winter’s non-findings regarding the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and my response to some of the discussion that has been taking place at Tom Nelson’s Ivory-bill Skeptic weblog. Note that at one point I refer to him as “Wilson”, and at another point as “Tim Nelson.” Sorry about that. Misidentifications everywhere you look!
  • Seeing Lazuli Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks, woo hoo.
  • Podcasts I’ve been listening to lately: The Hollywood Saloon, Filmspotting (née Cinecast), and Keith and the Girl.
  • The joys of vicarious domestic surveillance via the Internet.
  • The psychology of the long-distance commuter.


Hitt on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker’s Existence (or Not)

Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

Jack Hitt has an interesting piece in the New York Times Magazine: 13 Ways of Looking at an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. It does a good job of explaining the way that rare-bird sightings are treated in the world of high-stakes birding.

Soon after the original declaration of the discovery was made last April, controversy broke out, and it quickly got nasty. The ugliness derives from something deep in the heart of birding. Most people think of birding as either a science worthy of a word like “ornithology” or a harmless hobby pursued by rubber-faced old men in porkpie hats. But the act of birding, ultimately, is an act of storytelling. For instance, if someone said to you, “I saw this cardinal fly out of nowhere with yellow tips on its wings and land on the side of a tree,” even the least experienced amateur would counter that cardinals don’t have yellow wingtips and don’t cling to trees but rather perch on branches. Each bird is a tiny protagonist in a tale of natural history, the story of a niche told in a vivid language of color, wing shape, body design, habitat, bill size, movement, flying style and perching habits. The more you know about each individual bird, the better you are at telling this tale.

Claiming to have seen rare birds requires a more delicate form of storytelling and implies a connoisseur’s depth of knowledge. Saying “I saw an ivory-bill’s long black neck and white trailing feathers” requires roughly the same panache as tasting an ancient Bordeaux and discoursing on its notes of nougat and hints of barnyard hay.

If you don’t pull it off, then people presume that you are lying or stupid. And this is where birding gets personal. Telling a rare-bird-sighting story is to ask people to honor your ability as a birder — to trust you, to believe you.

Hitt tells a subtle tale himself about the people who have claimed to see an Ivory-billed recently, offering damning details about their long-held desire to see the bird and their association with the fringe elements of the cryptozoology set. As I’ve described in comments at Tom Nelson’s Ivory-bill Skeptic blog, I don’t think the case against the Ivory-billed’s rediscovery is anywhere near as strong as skeptics have been making out. But this article by Hitt does a good job of explaining why that skepticism exists. Podcast 17

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

More technologically-amplified meat flapping: podcast 17. Includes:

  • Audio of the Ray McGovern/Donald Rumsfeld debate.
  • Commentary on same.
  • A little about the Moussaoui verdict.
  • A mind-boggling amount of detail about the new birds I saw at the office this week.
  • Watching a missile launch from Manhattan Beach.
  • Ranting about Bush’s emotional problems.

Enjoy! Podcast 16

Friday, April 28th, 2006

I was feeling pretty low-energy when I started recording this, and I think it shows. For what it’s worth, though, here’s you go: Podcast 16.

  • A mention of coming attractions: The as-yet-unposted Tenth Anniversary Reader (sitting in my Drafts queue staring at me as I write this, waiting for me to find time to finish it).
  • A digression on why I’m really not interested in debating people who aren’t willing to accept even the possibility that they might be wrong. (I don’t state it that clearly in my comments, but in hindsight I think that’s what I was going for.)
  • An extended revisiting of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker controversy, this time with me providing more specifics about my objections to the approach taken by Sibley et al. in their criticisms of the rediscovery evidence.

That’s it.

More on David Sibley and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

Thursday, March 23rd, 2006

Some interesting followup links to my earlier story on bird-identification expert David Sibley’s problems with the claims for rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker:

Sibley: I Didn’t Include the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker in My Book, So It Doesn’t Exist

Saturday, March 18th, 2006

The New York Times has a brief article on the latest news regarding the rediscovery of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker: Is Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Alive? A Debate Emerges.

Basically, David Sibley, author of the best field guide to North American birds, has a brief item in the current issue of Science questioning the validity of claims for recent sightings of the bird in Arkansas (Comment on “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America”).

The authors of the original Science article on the rediscovery have a response in the same issue (Response to Comment on “Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) Persists in Continental North America”).

Basically, Sibley’s all wet. If you read his (and his co-authors’) criticisms, and the original authors’ response, he really just flat-out loses the argument.

Since Sibley is in some ways the leading expert in the country on bird identification, his criticism is getting a lot of attention. But speaking as someone who’s been involved, at least peripherally, in the world of obsessive birders for more than 30 years, I’ve got my own take on what’s going on here.

Basically, Sibley represents the extreme example of something that turned me off from competitive birding (and yeah, for a certain type of person it actually is a competition) a long time ago. Really obsessive birders tend to be skeptical of claims made by anyone less expert than themselves. Being better at finding and identifying “good” birds (by which they mean, rarities, either birds that are locally rare because they are occurring outside their normal range, or absolute rarities, because there just aren’t very many of them) is how they measure their status, and in that scheme of things, the Ivory-Bill really is the holy grail. For someone like Sibley, the fact that he hasn’t personally seen and identified an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, while someone else claims to have done so, represents a significant challenge to his sense of self-worth.

This is the same thing that annoys me about certain way-committed skeptics of the paranormal. You can be wrong by being too skeptical, just as you can be wrong by being too credulous. Being skeptical to the point of error isn’t a virtue; you’re still wrong. That’s the trap Sibley has fallen into here.

Stuff on Their Cats

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

I really hope this isn’t some kind of sexual obsession for the people involved. Anyway, courtesy of Jason and Janus/Onan: Stuff on my cat and Wesley Buckaroo. Podcast 10

Saturday, January 21st, 2006

More Bush-bashing (now with perspective!), some discussion of movies (including the Hollywood Saloon podcast, Man on Fire, and the Golden Globes), and extended rambling about The Grail Bird, Tim Gallagher’s book on the recent ivory-billed woodpecker rediscovery: Podcast 10.

Top Cryptozoology Stories of 2005

Monday, December 26th, 2005

From the fine people of come The top cryptozoology stories of 2005. By all means go there for the details, but here’s the summary:

  1. The Rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker
  2. Filming of the First Live Giant Squid
  3. New Homo floresiensis Discoveries
  4. New Animal Discovered in Borneo
  5. First Cryptozoology and Art Symposium at Bates College
  6. Bobby Clarke’s Manitoba Bigfoot Video
  7. Bigfoot Bounty
  8. Mystery Photos of Cryptid Felids and Fish
  9. Disney Yeti Expedition
  10. The Laotian Rock Rat is Discovered at a Meat Market