Have you ever been told that crickets can throw their voices, making it seem like the song is coming from another location? This is not true, but many believe it. A cricket’s song is meant to advertise his location so that a mate can find him, so it would not do to have her arrive at the wrong location. So why is the voice-throwing myth so well known? The truth is that crickets and other singing insects can be very hard to find by following their songs. The singers are so small, the songs so high-pitched, and the hiding places so complex that the would-be captor will often be foiled. So what is someone like me, who studies these creatures, supposed to do?
Techniques for locating singing insects are varied and often spontaneous. The most common technique seems to be to approach the sound until it stops, try to wait for it to resume, then lose patience and thrash the bushes in the area where you think you heard it last. This approach is not often successful.
Once in the Monashee Mountains with Claudia and Darren Copley (RBCM Entomology Collections Manager and Volunteer, respectively), we were having a lot of trouble agreeing on where a particular trill was coming from. Finally all of us pointed to where we believed the source to be at the same time. Slowly we advanced towards the intersection of our three pointing fingers until a tiny black cricket popped up from the moss. This turned out to be the first BC record of Allard’s Ground Cricket in more than 50 years. The ability of these ground crickets to hide is quite remarkable. At a concrete water reservoir in Oregon I heard a sound that I thought was being carried across the water. I approached until it seemed I was standing on top of it, but there was nothing there but bare concrete. On closer inspection, yes; the smallest crack at my feet was in fact hiding a Carolina Ground Cricket, rarely recorded in that part of the state.
Though I am a singing insect researcher, it turns out that my ability to hear these insects is quite poor. Luckily, however, my usual field partner is my wife Kristen, whose hearing is seemingly bionic. In fact, she often hears songs that are not even acknowledged in the literature on these insects. Through her ears I’ve discovered a whole world of unknown conversations. In turns out that many of these insects, in between regular songs that are well described, will almost whisper additional shuffles, clicks, and rattles. From the other side of the room, Kristen will say, “It’s doing it again,” while I, staring at the caged insect, can confirm that the wings are moving as if in song, but can hear nothing. This feat has been performed repeatedly, even in mixed crowds, and no one else but Kristen has ever been able to hear this ‘secret language’ that is being spoken between the regular songs.
Leave me the Cone-headed Katydids, the loudest singers of all. Advancing towards a singing male is distinctly uncomfortable, as if there’s a high-pitched lawnmower sharing space inside your skull. Even driving at 80 km per hour, there is a period of a few seconds when you can hear that you are approaching a Cone-headed Katydid. It’s too bad that none are found in BC, as I feel confident that this is a group that I will be able to hear and track even into old age.