Secret World Of Sound Series Showcases Algonquin Park Wolf Pups

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Secret World of Sound
Wolf pups howling in Algonquin Provincial Park. Photo courtesy of Secret World of Sound

A CBC Nature of Things special featuring the squeaks, squawks and songs of animals around the world showcases the wolves of Algonquin Park and how they survive the first year of life using their iconic howl.

Secret World of Sound premieres on CBC TV and CBC Gem at 9 p.m. on Feb. 15, but viewers will have to wait until the third episode comes out on Feb. 29 to see the wolf pups in action. The three-part series delves into how wildlife uses sound to mate, mingle and manage survival, some even before they fully emerge into the world. Host Anthony Morgan guides viewers through stories set in places like Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa as well as several parts of Canada. The series features familiar sounds, such as wolf howls and elk bugles, and sounds humans need technology to detect.

“There are an awful lot of animals out there that are making sounds that we can’t hear like the treehopper, for example, that we feature in episode [two],” said Dugald Maudsley, executive producer and writer for the series. “They communicate using vibrations. Honeybees are the same. One scientist explained to us there are about 200,000 species that communicate in ways that are silent to us.”

Focusing on the auditory experience translated to long periods spent recording sounds for the film. Showcasing sounds that are undetectable to the human ear also meant the crew had to get creative. One tool that helped them was a vibrometer, which is typically used to measure vibrations in machinery and structures, like the vibrations on the wing of a plane. 

Secret World of Sound
Mating treehoppers. Photo courtesy of Secret World of Sound

For the documentary, the vibrometer allowed the team to capture and amplify the sound of the treehoppers’ mating calls and other communications. The technology opened up a hidden world, Maudsley said, and the emphasis on sound also crafted his approach to writing the script.

It’s always important to focus the writing on what the viewer can’t see when it comes to writing for natural history, he said. In this case, the usual emphasis on wildlife imagery shifted to include sounds as well.

“It was realizing we’ve got to make space as well for these extraordinary sounds and let them be heard, so the writing really had to be sparse, the music had to be sparse,” he said. “Like music, the writing had to be there at the correct time.”

Maudsley said putting together a story-driven documentary came down to finding the best sound stories, some of which were found in Canadian locales. 

In Alberta’s grasslands, male sharp-tailed grouse do a fanciful coordinated dance and coo to attract a female. Not far away in Waterton Lake National Park, elk fight and bugle during rutting season. In other parts of the country, great grey owls use sound to locate prey and wolf pups howl to alert their siblings of danger.

“All these stories are really unique, very Canadian and quite revealing,” he said.

For Muskoka residents, the story of the wolf pups comes closest to home. The eastern wolves of Algonquin Park are an everpresent but elusive feature of the area. They use a wavering howl to make their packs seem bigger than they are, and when they leave to hunt, they call out in a chorus.

Most of the segment about the wolves focuses on the way wolf pups howl to survive. Before they’re old enough to hunt but too big to stay in the den, wolf pups stay in designated areas called rendezvous sites. They have to learn to howl to protect themselves, and it’s a delicate balancing act that can draw out more danger. 

Secret World of Sound
Photo courtesy of Secret World of Sound

“For the average person, even someone living up there, I don’t think it’s that easy to get out and see the wolves like we show you in the film,” Maudsley said. “Then of course, there’s the added layer which is understanding what’s going on, especially with these pups [since] many of them don’t make it past their first year of life.”

Gaining enough access to the wolves to film was no easy feat, so the crew brought in naturalists Michael and Britta Runtz to help them track the animals. They travelled 13,000 kilometres over five weeks to locate the wolves so that cameraman and director of photography Hugo Kitching could get the shots he needed.

The crew was able to capture a special view of the wolves and their habits, including a tense encounter between pups and a black bear, which provided a wonderful way to showcase great Canadian wildlife.

“That story is a real insight into a creature that’s kind of iconic for this part of Ontario and pretty unique worldwide,” he said. “To be able to actually see those wolves in action, to see what’s happening with them, to see how they deal with this situation, how they use their wolf howl to manage that, to me, that’s super unique.”

As a journalist and documentary filmmaker, Maudsley has covered human rights issues like trafficking, genocide and civil war, so making a series about the wonders of the world is a pleasure, he said. It’s positive and almost “life-affirming” to understand the world of communication animals are using to survive.

One of Maudsley’s colleagues, a longtime film editor, said it was a delight to simply sit and listen to the sounds from the film. In fact, it was nearly therapeutic. In all the hundreds of films he had cut together, the sounds from this one struck a chord.

Maudsley hopes the series will have a similar effect on its viewers. The documentary crew had a lot of fun telling the story and letting the animals say their part.

“By getting inside that world and being able to tap into that communication, we’re really able to see these dramatic stories unfold,” he said. “A flamingo chick getting lost and being found again, the wolves howling to protect themselves, all those things are really fascinating and only are available to us because of the way we were able to record the sound, and as a result of that, the story that we’re able to tell.”

Tune into CBC TV or CBC Gem at 9 p.m. ET on Feb. 15, 22 and 29 to watch Secret World of Sound. Watch a trailer for the series below.

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