The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It is Cricket Time Once Again
by Ro Wauer

Field crickets are once again invading our towns, homesites and businesses. Everywhere you look are black field crickets, scurrying here and there trying to find hiding places. Normally these crickets are found only in our fields and woodlots and are primarily nocturnal in character. The recent rains, however, have driven them out of their preferred habitats into conflict with people. Millions are zapped with insecticides, but they will keep coming until the weather changes. Then those that remain will go about their business as usual.

Field crickets often are welcome neighbors, so long as they stay outdoors. Many people consider crickets symbols of good luck. Jiminy Cricket, of Pinocchio fame, also helped establish their positive image. And crickets are prized for their singing and sometimes even kept in cages in people’s homes. In China, crickets were also kept for their fighting ability; cricket fights were as popular as horse races. The Chinese actually fed their crickets special diets, including mosquitoes fed on trainer’s arms, and weighed them in order to classify them for fighting.

Many of us enjoy their cheerful songs, and as the nights grow longer and cooler, their nocturnal serenades increase in intensity. Before winter they must mate to perpetuate their species. But only the males sing. They have three basic sound signals: a calling note, an aggressive chirp, and a courtship song to attract a female. Singing is done with the edge of one wing rubbing against the opposite wing, creating a chirping noise. Filelike ridges, called “scrapers,” near the base of the wing produce the sound. We can produce a similar sound by running a file along the edge of a tin can.

Wing covers provide an excellent sounding board, quivering when notes are made and setting the surrounding air to vibrating, thus giving rise to sound waves that can be heard for a considerable distance. The cricket’s auditory organ or “ear,” a small white, disklike spot, is located on the tibia of each front leg. The chirps become much higher in pitch in the presence of a female. Some of these ultrasonic sounds can reach 17,000 vibrations per second, higher than most people can distinguish. Females are easily identified by a long, spearlike ovipositor (egg-laying device) protruding from their abdomen. Eggs are laid in the ground and hatch in the spring.

Our local field crickets, almost an inch in length, are members of the Gryllidae family of insects, closely related to grasshoppers and mantises. They feed on a wide variety of materials, including vegetable matter, and when they get into our buildings they can consume everything from clothing to books. However, they will not remain there and breed but will return to their preferred outdoor environment when given a chance. Outdoors they are an integral part of our South Texas wildlife.

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