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Voices Coming to a Hush

With October’s rainy days, autumn is in full swing: trees have turned into pockets of rust, crimson, and yellow on the mountain.  White pines drop their needles that are more than one or two years old.  The mornings are getting chilly, promising colder and slower days coming up.  As the month stretches on, the insects that ran rampant through the summer are also slowing down, getting ready for winter.  You may have already heard them—the trills, buzzes, clicks, squawks, and cadences of the six-legged world, out singing for mates. Sometimes they still call, although the songs are getting scarcer.  Soon the trills and buzz of summer will decrescendo into a hush.

During a warm spell a few weeks ago, I was hiking the trails at Shaver’s Creek and heard katydids at one in the afternoon. I didn’t even know what they were at first: what kind of bird is this? What’s making that sound? They had a brusque, nervous tone to them. I started to record the sound so that I could ask someone about it, when I remembered that it was 70 degrees outside. I was sweating with a backpack. Katydids turn to a higher, more urgent pitch on hot days like that.

If you haven’t yet heard the sounds of the katydids, now is a good time to find them. There are still a few out there: the soloists, persisting in the last hours of fall.  Jared Skebo, a staff member at Shaver’s Creek, homed in on a meadow katydid a few weeks ago right outside an office.  He captured the bug stridulating, or singing, using its body to make the classic raspy sound.  Meadow katydids are less common in our part of Pennsylvania.  They’re not singing much at this point in the season. But for the common true katydid, listen for songs coming from about fifteen or twenty feet off the ground. Around where I live, katydids prefer the high branches of walnut trees, but I’ve read that they also call from oak trees. You can hear them in the afternoons and evenings, and sometimes still at night if it isn’t too cold.

And then there are the crickets! Field crickets, bush crickets, tree crickets, and even mole crickets underground.  I can’t tell the difference between their songs, but some people can. Crickets make a trill with their wings.  It is melodic, even poignant. Crickets seem to be most active where the forest meets the fields: symphonies at meadow edges, road edges, open space next to trees.  They like parking lots, bushes, and wooded areas that offer some underbrush.

Crickets and katydids have hearing organs on their front legs at the joint, akin to the inside of the elbow on our own bodies. They can hear the rhythms, but not the pitch, of different wing-songs. The trills of male crickets from different species are incredibly similar. Females discern the difference, though.

Last month, I was walking home from work and passed a field, where hundreds of crickets trilled their wings together.  Hundreds of male voices crammed in against each other, chorusing.  And then hundreds of females, silent but active, prowling the edges of sedges and looking for mates.  Imagine hearing one voice inside that melee.  All the songs blended together for me.  A constant note, like violinists tuning the A string. Yet for a cricket, each song must be distinct. Maybe it feels like standing in a crowd and hearing a friend’s voice amid the hubbub. They just kept singing with all their energy. The fact that so many creatures sounded together while they were competing led me to a haiku:

Trills from cricket legs
outsinging neighbors for mates
un-meant orchestra

You may still be able to catch the last few movements of cricket songs. Or katydids, for that matter. I hear the frosts are coming by the end of October, but there are still a few days left.

~Johanna “Juniper” Jackson, Autumn 2011 Intern

Note: I’ve referenced Lang Elliot and Wil Hershberger’s book “The Songs of Insects” in writing this article. It’s a great resource, with large photos and recordings of insect song.