Toward Singing Insect Monitoring: Dominant Frequency

by Carl Strang

When I conduct workshops or lead field trips on singing insects, people commonly ask about monitoring protocols. We have well established monitoring programs in the Chicago area for birds, frogs, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, plants and probably other groups I am forgetting at the moment, so how about singing insects? My answer usually revolves around the fact that different people hear singing insects differently, and this obstacle is a challenge that has yet to be solved. An important variable here is that different people hear different ranges of sound frequencies, and commonly older folks (like me) lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds. Recently I decided to try to get a quantitative handle on this pattern, using my experience as a gauge. I went to the Singing Insects of North America website and The Songs of Insects book by Elliott and Hershberger, and lifted out the dominant frequencies sung by the species in the Chicago region.

A male short-winged meadow katydid, one of the small meadow katydids, whose song has a dominant frequency of 13 kHz.

Most singing insects produce a range of different sound frequencies when they sing, a buzz for instance consisting of a mix of many low- to high-pitched sounds. Different sounds within the mix have different energies or volumes. The dominant frequency is the loudest one in a given species’ mix. Looking at just the dominant frequency, I see that the various local species range from 1.3 to 17 kilohertz (thousands of vibrations per second, a measure of the pitch or highness/lowness of a sound). I can hear every species with a dominant frequency below 13 kHz. In fact the only species I cannot hear at all are the small meadow katydids (the members of genus Conocephalus), which sing in the 13-17 kHz range. Children and young adults can hear these, I have found. A simple, if expensive, work-around is the SongFinder device.

The long-spurred meadow katydid is my marginal species, at 12 kHz. I can hear them from close range in the woods if there aren’t a lot of competing sounds. Interesting to me is the fact that I hear them clearly at the Brookfield Zoo, where they are fairly common. I doubt that the zoo’s long-spurreds have lower dominant frequencies. My best guess is that the relative lack of other sounds in that range, plus the amplification of the songs reflecting from sidewalks and buildings, increases my ability to hear them there.

Long-spurred meadow katydid, my marginal species

Another related variable is a person’s ability to pick up a sound from a distance. Roesel’s katydid has a dominant frequency of 15 kHz. I can still hear them, but less well with each passing year, and I have to be closer to them. Children and young adults easily pick them up earlier in the song and at a much greater distance. Probably what I hear is not that dominant frequency but the lower part of the frequency range included in Roesel’s buzz. Recently I learned that young adults can hear common meadow katydids, dominant frequency 10 kHz, at a much greater distance than I can, though I hear them clearly if I am within, say, 30 feet.

Common meadow katydid

I think that monitoring protocols are possible to develop, but clearly these are variables that will need to be taken into account. There are other obstacles as well, which I will address at another time.

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