Tuning in to Cricket Radio
Corps of Discovery member Andy Brand pushing for crickets
by John Himmelman
A few years ago I gathered some friends to hunt for the smallest cricket in North America, the Sphagnum Ground Cricket (Allonemobius palustris). The friends are part of a group we call “Corps of Discovery”, after the band of explorers forming Lewis and Clark’s assemblage in the early nineteenth century. We are all naturalists, each with a focus unique to the group. Because of this, our forays often cover little more than a few yards per hour.
Sphagnum Ground Crickets live solely in open sphagnum moss bogs. I knew of such a bog in the northwest corner of the state of Connecticut. Whether or not it was inhabited by these crickets, I did not know. Getting to the bog involved a hike through a sloping woodland and then a balancing act atop a sixty-foot long beaver dam. Upon reaching the edge of the bog, we began to pick up the faint trill of crickets. It was a soft, high-pitched sound, produced by the blending of many chorusing males. Process of elimination, and the habitat from which they sang, strongly suggested this was our quarry! There was an ethereal quality to the song – it came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The sound hovered over the bog, and when mixed with the croaking of ravens in the background, this rare and ancient habitat in which they resided became all the more magical.
Walking on a quaking bog is an experience in itself, much like walking on a large, soggy trampoline, or waterbed. At no time was the possibility of falling through and sinking beneath the moss far from my thoughts. Visions of those ancient “peat men” dug up in old European bogs kept a constant tendril of caution in my movements. I wondered aloud what future excavators would make of me with my bag of empty jars, butterfly net, digital recorder and camera. Perhaps I’d be viewed as some hapless shaman, or just another unfortunate bug collector.
While the sound of the sphagnum ground crickets was everywhere, we could not see any. In 1904, Canadian entomologist Edmund Murton Walker wrote of a technique one could apply in this instance. If you push down on the moss, it creates a puddle. Any little critters living amongst it would be forced to climb to the surface to avoid becoming submerged. It worked beautifully! In short time we had forced over a dozen of these tiny singers to the surface. And tiny they were! Their little reddish-black bodies were no more than three-eights of an inch from head to tail. It is amazing the volume of sound that can be produced by those diminutive wings.
I went home with a jar of 7 Sphagnum Ground Crickets; four males and three females. They sang in my studio for the rest of the summer and into the early autumn, bringing me back to that verdant wetland.
It is often the case that the “hunt is the thing”. My search for night-singing insects (crickets and katydids) has brought me on weeks-long journeys from Florida to Maine during the seasons when insect song is at its crescendo. Those songs, while pleasant to our ear, and psyche, were not created for our edification. They are the result of male crickets and katydids reaching out to find and secure a mate before the season, and their life, ended. Males call by rubbing together their two upper wings. A file on one rubs across a scraper on the other, producing a sound much in the way a sound is produced when you pull your fingernail across a comb. When the weather, fertility, and spatial conditions are right, those wings lift and go at it! They have no choice. They are hardwired to call when their biological taskmaster demands. To stop this act, one would need to tie its wings behind its back.
“Cricket Radio, Tuning In the Night-Singing Insects” is about those songs, and how and why they affect us. Humans have been keeping these songsters as pets for over a thousand years, much as birds are kept to add their song to the aural tapestry of our homes. Curious about why these insects sing, I embarked on a journey to learn about who those individual singers are and where they came from. Who gave them their names? How did calling develop in their ancient forebears? What kind of cricket is Jiminy Cricket (he’s not quite the happy crooner in the original Pinocchio)? Along the way, I learned how to bring their songs into my own home – how to keep them happy and singing away.
It is a cold, rainy February afternoon as I type this. Days like this make me think about those warm summer evenings. The TV is off. The I-pod is taking a rest. The windows are open and I’m tuned in to my favorite station – Cricket Radio.
Sphagnum Ground Cricket
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