Orthopteran Songs

(This column was first published in the August 2, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Philip Freneau is sometimes referred to as our first national poet but he is best known to entomologists as our only literary figure to name an insect. Here are the 18th century lines from which the name is derived:

                In her suit of green arrayed,
                Hear her singing in the shade --
                Caty-did, Caty-did, Caty-did!

    It is from that verse that our familiar summer insect, the katydid, got its name.

    There are, however, some problems here. The spelling has been altered but we can hardly blame Freneau for changing orthographic preferences. I suspect that there are still some Catherines who prefer Freneau’s spelling of their nickname.

    On the other hand, we can find in his verse a number of natural history errors. We can give him the benefit of the doubt by interpreting "in the shade" as nighttime for that is the only time the katydid sings. Also we have become so used to hearing "katydid" in this insect’s monotonous chirping that we fail to realize that the song usually contains only two syllables. Listen to it more carefully next time and you will hear: "Kay did, Kay did, Kay did" instead of Freneau’s rendering. When the katydid does occasionally produce three notes, the accent is so placed that it sounds to me more like "Kay didn’t, Kay didn’t, Kay didn’t," still not Freneau’s version.

    There is another problem with the poem. Freneau’s insect is a female. Among species of the order orthoptera, which includes grasshoppers, crickets, the praying mantis and cockroaches as well as katydids, the katydid is one of the few whose adult females produce sound. Unfortunately for Freneau, however, the female katydid only responds to the male’s accusations with a simple squawk. We can certainly appreciate that occasional answering complaint to the male’s grating phrase for he repeats it as many as 50 million times over a single summer.

    Insect sound is indeed a dog day feature of our region. It replaces the springtime chorus of frogs and provides, for me at least, a pleasant background noise. In bed at night I fall asleep almost immediately listening to the katydids chanting in our backyard ash trees. I am like those puppies that are lulled to sleep by a ticking clock.

    The effect on me of a whip-poor-will’s call is entirely different, however. It is certainly more musical, but after a while I simply cannot stand the whistled repetitions. Perhaps this effect is due to my initial excitement at hearing this rare bird. I am delighted to listen to that first call but the thousandth (barely minutes later) is something else again. I am ready by then to contribute to the extinction of the species.

    Insect sounds are something else again. I find the simple chirps of the cricket (including the alien house cricket that drives my wife up the wall) lulling and I even enjoy the loud pulsating buzzes of the various cicadas, one of which is aptly called the scissors grinder. Why those chain saw-like sounds appeal to me, I cannot say.

    Whereas birds are vocalists, insects are instrumentalists. They use parts of their bodies not quite as violins, because there is no variation of pitch, but at least as percussion instruments. Crickets and some grasshoppers produce sound by rubbing a sharp edge of one front wing against a file-like ridge on the underside of the other. This pattern varies among other orthopterans, some using hind wings and others hind legs as scrapers. The cicada, which belongs to the order of true bugs, produces its music quite differently. It uses muscles to vibrate drumhead like chest membranes.

    Whatever the means, I find the results pleasing.-- Gerry Rising