National Geographic : 1953 Sep
Crickets, Nature's Expert Fiddlers 385 Celebrated in Story and Legend, These Accomplished Insects Are Musicians, Ventriloquists-and Thermometers BY CATHERINE BELL PALMER National Geographic Magazine Staff ONE September evening in Silver Spring, Maryland, the incessant chirp, chirp, chirp, of a cricket in the house in terrupted my reading. During the summer I had become so accustomed to these insects' familiar calls outdoors that I rarely noticed them. But within the four walls of a house the chirp seemed to double in volume and fill the whole living room. My collie, Ginger, cocked her head, looked up at me with a quizzical expression, and trotted off in search of the noisemaker. I joined her, but whenever we reached a spot where we thought the cricket was, its call seemed to come from another part of the room. Fiddle by Scraping Wings This aural illusion was no accident. Most crickets, like cicadas, become ventriloquists to deceive pursuers.* Nature's fiddlers, they produce their shrill music by rubbing their wings together. When the common field cricket wants to make his call, he raises his fore wings at an angle of about 45° to his body. A file on one wing rasps against a scraper on the other, creating the sound vari ously described as treat-treat-treat,cree-cree cree, or gru-gru-gru (page 391). During this fiddling process, called stridu lation, the insect controls the volume and direction of the sound by position of the wings in relation to the body. To make the muted, muffled notes giving the illusion of distance, the wings are lowered close to the back. Some species-certain small bush crickets, for example-do not sing at all. Of the 2,000 known species, the one we were chasing probably was Acheta assimilis, the common field cricket. Although Acheta domesticus, the house cricket of the Old World, has been introduced here, it is not nearly so numerous as the field cricket. Through the ages the cheerful chirp of the cricket has been woven into literature and legend. Charles Dickens did more than any other writer, perhaps, to popularize the little creature with his classic The Cricket on the Hearth. In this charming story there is a contest between a kettle and a cricket to deter mine which can sing louder and longer. Cricket wins when the kettle boils over. The song of the snowy tree cricket, Oecan thus niveus, evoked extravagant praise from Nathaniel Hawthorne. "If moonlight could be heard," he wrote, "it would sound like that." Henry David Thoreau called the sound "a slumberous breathing" and "an inner dream." To many, the steady chirping of a cricket, reminiscent of a singing teakettle, suggests peace and comfort. The French entomologist, Jean Henri Fabre, proclaimed, "I know of no insect voice more gracious, more limpid in the profound peace of the nights of August." But a New York Times nature writer, Hal Borland, apparently had an experience similar to mine. In a Times editorial he described a cricket as "a black, ambulatory noise sur rounded by a sentimental aura. On occasion it lives in the open fields, but its favorite habitat is behind a couch or under a bookcase in a room where somebody is trying to read. It has six legs, which make it an insect; two antennae, which make it a creature of sensi tive feelings; two wings that can be scraped together, which make it a nuisance." In old England it was considered good luck to have a cricket chirping on the hearth. For centuries cricket fighting has provided a national pastime in China. Records of cele brated insect fighters are preserved by the Chinese as records of thoroughbred race horses are kept in other countries. Weighed in be fore every fight, crickets are divided into heavyweight, middleweight, and lightweight classes (pages 388, 389). Some devotees of cricket fighting raise the insects and hire professional trainers to feed and care for them. Special diets consisting of rice, boiled chestnuts, and mosquitoes are given before a fight. Temperature Affects Song In both China and Japan crickets are also kept as musical pets. In the days of the Chinese empire even the palace had its royal chorus of crickets. Beautiful specimens of cricket cages are now museum pieces (page 393). Common folk had to be content with cages of bamboo or of coconut shell; the rich had gourds with covers made of carved ivory and jade. Cricket cages in the collection of the Chicago Natural History Museum include one made from a carved walnut shell. Whether the call of this fiddling member of * See "Rip Van Winkle of the Underground," by Kenneth F. Weaver, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, July, 1953.