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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Autumn Insect Songs

Air Date: Week of

It's official on September 23. Autumn is here. Soon, many of us will revel in the beauty of changing leaves, the cool snap in the air, and the flights of migrating birds. But for commentator Sy Montgomery, the loveliness of the season is captured in the sweetness of the voices of insects. Commentator Sy Montgomery lives in Hancock, New Hampshire and comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.


CURWOOD: It's official. On September 23rd, autumn is here. Soon, many of us will revel in the beauty of changing leaves, the cool snap in the air, and the flights of migrating birds. But for commentator Sy Montgomery, the loveliness of the season is captured in the sweetness of the voices of...insects.

(Many crickets)

MONTGOMERY: As summer ripens into autumn, bird song gives way to bug song, especially the virtuosos: crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers. Their songs aren't mere background music. They're conversations, and we can listen in. The songs tell of longing and pursuit, rivalry and battle. Listen. If the song of the autumn field cricket suddenly becomes louder, more rapid, and higher-pitched, it means he's located a lady and is calling to her. If his calls then soften, she's come to him, and given her consent to mate. But if the chirps get louder, longer, and less rhythmic, he's encountered instead a rival, and a viscious battle may ensue. So viscious are cricket fights that they were the entertainment extravaganzas of the Sung Dynasty of China in 900 AD. The conquering crickets were so revered that when they died they were buried in little silver caskets.

Some songs convey information we can use. Because an insect's metabolism speeds up with the heat, the hotter the weather, the faster the chirping. The male snowy tree cricket, who sings from September till the first killing frost, tracks temperatures almost as accurately as a thermometer. Count the chirps in 15 seconds and add 39, and you have the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit.

It takes some effort to listen for insect song. Before he died, Vincent Dethier, who wrote a wonderful book, "Crickets and Katydids' Concerts and Solos," told me, "Listen for silence. Then you'll hear them." We must learn to savor the full range of Nature's world of sound. Of course, the songs are not meant for our ears. They're meant to be listened to with small disks near one of the front leg joints, which is where members of the grasshopper family keep their ears. For communicating with such creatures, these songs are perfect. For these animals know what some people never learn: looks are nothing. Performance is all.

Over the relatively long distances these little insects must travel to find one another, songs call out the identity of the musician. In fact, entomologists can sometimes better classify species by song than by appearance. The songs are actually not sung, but fiddled, produced with wings that work like a violinist playing pizzicato. The sound-producing structure is a big wing-vane that bears dozens, sometimes hundreds, of tiny ridges, like a file. The file moves against a scraper, a hardened portion of the inner edge of the wing.

The fall songs of crickets, katydids, and grasshoppers are among the most lovely and lyrical sounds of the natural world. In Africa, the songs of crickets are said to have magical powers. Henry David Thoreau described the song of one species as "a slumberous breathing," an "intenser dream." And when Nathaniel Hawthorne described the autumn music of the snowy tree cricket, he wrote, "If moonlight could be heard, it would sound like that."

(Cricket song; fade to music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery lives in Hancock, New Hampshire, and comes to us courtesy of New Hampshire Public Radio.



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