Nature Nearby: The music of the night

September 10, 2013

Guess who came to dinner? A Lesser Anglewing. Photo by Fred Seitz

FRED SEITZ

BY FRED SEITZ — On a warm summer or early fall night, stepping outside fills your ears with a symphony or cacophony of nature’s free “music in the park” or even “music in your own backyard.”  Most of the concert is courtesy of male crickets and katydids calling for dates and mates.  Some of these singers, especially field crickets, sound familiar since they take refuge in our houses as the weather cools.

Crickets and katydids are related to grasshoppers, also known as locusts. (This may come as a surprise to those who use “cicada” and “locust” interchangeably.) Locusts, as readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder may recall, are renowned agricultural pests.

Crickets and katydids have generally a more benign reputation and are often enjoyed for their nocturnal songs and in some cultures (notably Japan) kept in cricket cages as good-luck tokens.  All three groups can produce sound by a process of stridulation, which entails rubbing a leg or wing against a flattened “comb” that may be on their backs or elsewhere on their bodies.  This action produces and, in some cases amplifies, the sound.

One rather unusual cricket, the mole cricket, has taken his sound-making to an extreme by digging a tunnel with his large forelegs. The tunnel and the cricket’s large size enable him to produce a very loud frog-like noise in the evenings. The jumping bush cricket’s single peep is common in Magruder Park and most backyards.

The Japanese burrowing cricket, who sounds like the field cricket playing at a much faster pace, is an invader who came to the United States in 1959 and has spread rapidly.

While perhaps the most famous cricket, the snowy tree cricket, does not live in our area, his fame for temperature prediction gave the calls of all crickets considerably more attention and led many people to use their calls as proxy thermometers.  People would count the number of chirps in 15 seconds and add 37 to get the temperature in Farenheit.  While some people have tried this with other cricket chirps, it is far less reliable.

Among the katydids who add to the nightly concerts, the familiar true katydid does the familiar “katy did, katy didn’t” call from high in the trees at night and is familiar to most of us.  Backing up the true katydid are a number of relatives including the Greater and Lesser Anglewings. The angle wings offer a series of ticking sounds and lisp sounds, respectively. Several other katydid kin in our woods and yards make sounds like single or multiple “ticks”.

While perhaps not as melodious as some of our local birds and frogs, these local beasties provide food for both birds and frogs and add a bit of music to our late summer evenings.  They are the focus of the local citizen science program known as the Baltimore-Washington Cricket Crawl; click the link to hear sounds of the target species.

Whether or not the citizen science endeavor appeals to you, listening to the sounds on the website can help familiarize you with some of your backyard and park neighbors who serenade us.

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