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A Field Guide to
Identifying Unicorns
˜by Sound˜

Additional funny bits by humorist Jonathan Caws-Elwitt.
Copyright © 2007 by Craig Conley. All rights reserved.

For Ken Clinger:
“nothing compares”

For Bev Yates:
“near and dear”

If a unicorn frolics in the forest with no one to hear it, then is the unicorn imaginary?
—Zen koan

If you listen to the unicorn and hear a unicorn, you’ve not really heard the unicorn. But if you listen to a unicorn and hear a
miracle, then you’ve heard the unicorn.
—Zen parable

About This Book

From within the brilliance of a crescent moon, the silhouette of a unicorn spoke to him. The enchanting voice instructed him to seek the Child of Light.
—Bruce R. Cordell,
Lady of Poison (2004)

There are many ways to detect the presence of a unicorn in your own backyard, without the need for expensive electronic equipment (leave that to the greenhorn rangers) or a virgin maid (leave her to the hopeless romantics). The most obvious is via the faculty of sight. When conditions of poor visibility preclude this approach, the “third eye” of intuition is commonly employed to track down the elusive beast.

This book, however, will focus on the immense potential of the human ear. It is a little-known fact that, with listening practice, the human ear can be a peerless tool for perceiving unicorns. (The converse principle—that the unicorn ear is a peerless tool for perceiving humans—is, if true, a fact so little-known as to be undocumented.) Even those unicorn fanciers with hearing loss or profound deafness will benefit from the wealth of knowledge contained herein. Just as our old friend the blind Mexican cave fish (astyanax hubbsi) responds to moving visual stimuli,1 the human ear responds to unicorn sounds—even to those unicornian vibrations that are technically outside the range of one’s hearing.

This book weaves precious bits and pieces of evidence like a Celtic braid, gathering from a wide variety of sources: chronicles of yore, modern-day eyewitness accounts, oral histories and folk traditions, and, of course, myths and legends from around the world. These testaments are not intended to stand as scientific proof of unicorns. On the contrary, they paint a far grander picture than the tight rein of science can fabricate. It is the intention of this book to beguile your eardrums with the rhythmic hoofbeats, melodic whinnies, wistful sighs, and even bated breaths of the majestic unicorn. And when the book ends, its story will continue. For the final chapter of our saga will be yours to tell, based upon your own unforgettable first-hand experiences.

1 Teyke, Thomas and Stephanie Schaerer, “Blind Mexican Cave Fish (Astyanax Hubbsi) Respond to Moving Visual Stimuli,” The Journal of Experimental Biology 188, 89 (1994)


By the faint breath of movement before his face, the sudden sweet smell like the breath of a spring wind, he knew that the unicorn was nearby, invisible, watching him with wide eyes.
—John C. Wright, The Last Guardian of Everness (2005)

A rustle of leaves in the breeze. A subtle creaking of tree branches. (An eerie whinny?) A humming of insects. A chirping of songbirds. (A soft clomping of hooves?)

Though they “aren’t as rare as you might think,”2 unicorns, like other retiring creatures of the forest, are often shrouded by their habitat. How many bird watchers have spied a warbler perched upon a tapered branch, never dreaming that the selfsame branch is, in actuality, a unicorn’s horn? Truth be told, far more unicorn herds are heard than are ever seen. Out of the gleeful chorus of wilderness creatures, the simplest way to pinpoint an elusive unicorn is to listen for its song.

Here’s a secret: expert unicorn spotters can “see” more unicorns, per capita, with their eyelids shut than the average person can see with eyes wide open. That’s because they have an intimate friendship with the sounds unicorns make. As you concentrate with eyes closed and mind focused, you may detect the telltale song of the unicorn, announcing the presence of the venerable creature and beckoning you to begin your quest. When you open your eyes, the unicorn may not be immediately visible, but you’ll know where to start looking.

Hearing a unicorn requires time, patience, and “deep listening” skill on the part of the human,
3 and vocal projection on the part of the unicorn. Because we live in a highly visual world, we rarely exercise the full range of our hearing. Yet our ears can detect things that our eyes automatically neglect. By listening as opposed to looking, we can avoid overlooking. Practice can be richly rewarding, whether one is listening for unicorns in particular or neglected delights in general.

This compact yet comprehensive guide will help you to identify the various calls of the mysterious unicorn as it frolics in its natural environment. Along the way, you will become better acquainted with unicorns’ habits, eccentricities, antics, attitudes, and manners. Before you know it, encountering unicorns will become second nature to you, and you will have collected a treasure-trove of observations, anecdotes, snapshots, sketches, and memories for your unicorn scrapbook!

A few preliminary listening tips are in order:

1. Sit for a spell. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no need to wear camouflage or to hide, at least as far as the unicorn is concerned. (If, however, you feel more comfortable wearing camouflage or hiding, you may do so without ill effect.) If you are still, relaxed, and “at one with nature,” the typical unicorn won’t be frightened. Find a comfortable place, such as under a tree, and allow yourself to “tune in” to the environment. After a few minutes, you’ll notice a marked refinement in your hearing—you’ll pick up on subtle auditory changes.

2. Since the human field of vision is less than 180°, there are great odds that a unicorn will approach from one of your many blind spots. Close your eyes and practice being aware of sounds coming from different directions, especially from behind you. One of the advantages of hearing over sight is that our ears offer a 360° scope.

3. Birdsong will likely be prominent in the soundscape, so practice listening beyond it to more subtle noises. Undue attention to birds when listening for unicorns is the sensory equivalent of overindulging in hors d’oeuvres and thereby spoiling one’s appetite for dinner.

4. Experiment with listening at different times of day, as unicorns can have unpredictable schedules. Sunset and midnight are recommended listening times. So is the break of dawn:

The sounds of the unicorns rose from the canyon below them as the first signs of the new day appeared in the sky. (Walter Dean Myers, Shadow of the Red Moon, 1997)

5. Listen for sudden changes in the sounds that come—or fail to come—from conventional animals. An animal’s alarm call might warn of a predator, while celebratory sounds, noncommittal murmurings, or eerie silence might signal the presence of a unicorn. Chapter One explores environmental changes in detail. Without further ado, let the adventure begin!

The human ear is naturally equipped to attune to the sounds of a unicorn. The outer ear follows the Fibonacci Spiral (a mathematical ratio ubiquitous throughout nature, from sunflowers to fingerprints to galaxies to unicorn horns). The spiral shape of the cochlea is the inner ear’s “unicorn antenna,” boosting low frequencies.

2 Phil Brucato, Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium (2003)

3 Needless to say, unicorns also communicate through dreams and via emissaries (as Mary Stanton notes in Unicorns of Balinor: Search for the Star, 1999), but that’s neither here nor there.


They just sat and listened to the sounds of the brook, and the rustling of the wind in the trees beyond, and the buzzing of the small flying things, and the warmth of the sun on their heads and shoulders, and the cool wet of the grass beneath, and letting their thoughts drift with the fluffy white clouds above, when they heard a whirlpool of whispering, a strange sound like they had never heard before.

And on the other side of the brook, as the sounds began to fade away, a ghostlike shape appeared, and it looked like something their mother had shown them in the old leather bound book she had kept high up on the kitchen shelf, and as one, they remembered and they said its designation, “Unicorn” in hushed tones so as not to frighten the creature that had appeared before them.

The unicorn looked directly at them, and saw them, and it spoke, with a voice like gentle bells, “You can see me.”

—Silvia Hartmann, “The Golden Horse” (2001)

Listen for environmental clues.

There will be times when the natural world around you becomes aware of a unicorn’s presence, even when you cannot yet perceive the majestic beast. By paying attention to subtle sonic changes, you can increase your opportunities for spotting a unicorn. Practice keeping an ear out for:

  • a sudden hush of crickets
  • an emphatic hoot of an owl
  • a rustling of oak leaves in a grove (if oak leaves are unavailable, elm leaves may be substituted in a 2-to-1 ratio)
  • a bumbling of bees
  • a sigh emanating from the brambles
  • an improbable tinkling of wind chimes (see next chapter)
  • a pause in a woodpecker’s hammering on an old tree trunk
  • a whisper amid an autumnal harvest
  • a melodious rumbling of thunder
  • a snapping of twigs as small animals leap aside
  • a whistling of the wind among the rocks
  • a flatted fifth from an uninvited trombone
  • a sizzling spark in the air when lightning bugs are absent

The unicorn pranced side to side. . . . Musical voltage chimed in the soaring spaces of the forest.
—A. A. Attanasio,
The Dragon and the Unicorn (1996)

  • a “crackling, papery sound—like the sound of a dry husk peeling from a bulb” (Carol Mason, “The Song of the Blue Unicorn,” quoted in Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton, 1996)

The following revelatory sounds may indicate that a noble unicorn is close at hand or just around a wooded corner:

  • a nibbling behind a hedge in a leafy cloister

Hearing a noise a couple of feet away, Ruairidh threw himself behind a bush and peered through the leaves. The creature stood directly in front of his sight. He could see it bowing low and then moving its mouth as if it were talking, but he couldn’t make out any noise over the rumbling from above the clouds. Then the creature pranced away to his right.
—Sheona R. McCaig,
Scrolls of Power (2003)

  • a swoosh or swirl of air from a swatting tail

The unicorn was calm—neck arched, heavy tail swatting lazily at its golden sides, ears pitched forward as if it, too, were listening. —Peter S. Beagle,
Immortal Unicorn (1999)

  • a placid munching of sweet grass

The pure white unicorn was carefully munching at the bright green grass.
—Katrina Patton,
A Journey into Imagination (2001)

  • a blithe chortle echoing in a soft patter of rainfall

The unicorn whinnied like it was laughing.
—Gail Haley,
Mountain Jack Tales (1992)

Listen for a faint chiming, like a distant church bell.

The unicorn head spoke in a deep yet distant voice.
—Mary Stanton,
Unicorns of Balinor: Valley of Fear (1999)

Have you ever perceived a silvery tinkling sound like a peal of bells reverberating from the distant horizon? That tintinnabulation may well have been the voice of an Asian unicorn gamboling about in the greenery. A unicorn of Asian origin possesses a “very musical voice quite different from that of its braying European counterpart,” notes Jay Burch in
A Small Book of Unicorns (1995). An intelligent listener will be cognizant of the differences between the two subspecies.

Bear in mind that the signature “distant” sound may not indicate physical remoteness. The ethereal, unworldly nature of the unicorn gives its voice a decidedly far-off quality. Think of it as a “special effect.” The exotic reverberations evoke bygone eras, distant memories, faraway lands, remote connections, out-of-print books, and reserved feelings. Our ears pick up on that detachment and our brains try to account for it, “interpreting” it as coming from far away. Be aware that a seemingly distant chiming could indicate a unicorn right around the corner or even close enough to touch.

Here’s Yasmine Galenorn’s poetic description: “Her voice is that of thin glass shattering, like a hundred chimes playing in the wind” (
Magical Meditations, 2003). Chinese legend suggests that the sound is exponentially richer; the voices of unicorns are described as being “sweet and delicate, with the sound of a thousand wind chimes” (Kevin Owens, “All About Unicorns,” 2006). In one report, a unicorn “cried out in a voice like a monastery bell” (Deanna J. Conway, Magickal, Mystical Creatures, 2001). Another report describes “the wind chime voice of the beast” (James Pajot, Nil Se’n La, 2003).

Other accounts of unicorns’ faint chiming in literature include:

“Who steals the water from the unicorn’s pool?” demanded a voice like chiming bells.
—Pamela C. Wrede,
Book of Enchantments (1996)

“I am here,” a voice said, a clean, pure sound like breath on chimes. Kara turned. The unicorn stood on the pavement not four feet away.
—Rachel Roberts,
All That Glitters (2001)

Compare the waveforms of two bell sounds. The vibrations (moving left to right through time) diminish in each, but with a difference. Notice the gradual, steady decay of the church bell. The unicorn chime, on the contrary, has an irregular decay. Its swelling waveform betrays an organic nature. Here we have two bell sounds with very different characters.

The ringing of distant church bells is a telltale indicator of unicorns, especially when no churches or bell towers are in the vicinity. When uncertain, consult a Michelin Green Guide.


Strange & Unusual References
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Copyright © 2007 by Craig Conley.  All rights reserved.