by Carl Strang
In an earlier post I wrote about how the soprano recorder, a musical instrument, has been helpful in my singing insects research. This summer I acquired another gadget and began exploring its potential.
This is the SongFinder. Microphones on each earpiece take in sounds, the electronic box alters them by reducing their pitch, and sends the results back to the earpieces. You can slow sound frequencies by one-half, one-third or one-fourth. You also can set threshold sound frequencies below which the device does no alteration. At several hundred dollars, this is not an impulse buy. I waited a couple years until I had made a good start on the insect songs I could hear unaided. But now I am at the point where I want to begin surveying additional species, mainly small meadow katydids in the genus Conocephalus, whose songs are too high-pitched for me to hear without help.
This is a short-winged meadow katydid. I never had heard its song until I used the SongFinder. The song has the typical meadow katydid tick-and-buzz pattern. In this case the song is very brief, lasting one to two seconds depending on temperature. The songs repeat continuously with no gap between them. The buzz has an exceptionally rattling quality, and the 2-3 ticks are very fast. At Mayslake Forest Preserve on a recent day I heard dozens of short-winged meadow katydids whose songs vanished from my hearing when I turned off the SongFinder. Thanks to the stereo design, I found I can locate the direction from which an altered sound is coming and trace it to the singer.
I have done my best to protect my hearing. I avoid louder music concerts, and use ear plugs when necessary, for instance in 2007 when, at their peak, periodical cicadas at mid-day were chorusing so loudly that my ears hurt without protection. Even with these precautions, age gradually has eroded the upper range of pitches I can hear. The SongFinder was created for birders and other natural history enthusiasts for whom sounds are an essential part of our aesthetic.
As I continue to make use of this device in future years I look forward to hearing additional species, such as the slender meadow katydid (though not the individual in the picture, which is a female).