Landscape Ecology of Singing Insects 2: Human Influences

by Carl Strang

The previous post illustrated that the Chicago region has been a dynamically changing landscape through the recent millennia, but that now is overshadowed by the alterations our own species has made. Burgeoning human numbers have overwhelmed the planet’s ecosystems, and the native habitats described earlier mostly have been replaced by agriculture and urban growth in the Chicago region. One of the more dramatic changes is the loss of the Kankakee wetland, once described as the Everglades of the North. That vast wetland was drained for agriculture, and only a few pockets of it survive in preserves. Much of the Kankakee River in Indiana is now a straight channel with constructed high levee banks. Other smaller wetlands received similar treatment, with drainage ditches spreading across the agricultural portion of the region. This is not universally devastating to wetland species. Northern mole crickets, for instance, occasionally can be found along drainage ditches.

Drainage ditch, upper reaches of the Kankakee River, St. Joseph County, Indiana. Note farm fields on both sides.

Prairie mostly has been replaced by agricultural fields, and fire suppression has led to its invasion by woody plants. Specialists such as the prairie meadow katydid, prairie cicada and short-winged toothpick grasshopper are hard to find.

Prairie meadow katydid

My singing insects research has required a lot of driving to reach the relatively tiny surviving preserves and parks to which many of the species are now restricted. Much management effort is required in these little islands to maintain their habitats. There are exceptions, of course. Many other species have thrived under our influence. These are mainly weedy ones such as the striped ground cricket, short-winged meadow katydid and Carolina grasshopper, which do well in disturbed habitats, along with woodland edge species such as the greater angle-wing, snowy tree cricket, and jumping bush cricket, which can meet their needs in residential neighborhoods dominated by lawns and scattered trees and shrubs.

Jumping bush cricket

Habitat destruction is not the only human influence. Climate change is the probable cause of northward range expansions by several singing insect species, and it likely will lead to the extinction of the sphagnum ground cricket from the region as the sphagnum bogs dry up. Say’s cicada and some northern grasshoppers already appear to be pushed out.

Sphagnum ground cricket

Climate change isn’t simply a matter of rising temperatures, as the term “global warming” may seem to imply. Global warming is an accurate enough term, as the simplest way to measure climate change is to track the global average temperature. But the point is that our changes to the Earth’s thin skin of atmosphere are increasing its held solar energy. That energy alters patterns of atmospheric flow and the behavior of storms. Droughts, more frequent flood-causing rains, and seasonal increases or decreases in temperature that seem abnormal are examples of results we observe locally. The singing insects are forced to adjust as best they can. Droughts force sphagnum ground crickets into the wettest parts of their bogs. The severe drought of 2012 concentrated wetland meadow katydids and marsh coneheads into the small portions of the Great Marsh in the Indiana Dunes National Park that remained wet. Oblong-winged meadow katydids may be pre-adapted to such year-to-year variability. Blatchley (1920) observed that their eggs, laid in moist soil, can take 2-3 years to hatch. In my travels through the region I failed to hear a single individual in the years 2010 and 2019, but in other years they have been abundant and widespread. Some of the cicadas and other species may have similar flexibilities.

Oblong-winged katydid

People also have introduced plant species from other parts of the world which, released from the consumers and competitors which hold them in check in their native lands, have become invasive plants here. Their unfair competitive advantage has led to their displacing the region’s native vegetation in an increasing number of places. This is most evident in our wetlands. Wetland meadow katydids and other singing insects are limited to places where native wetland grasses have not been supplanted by reed canary grass, common reed, purple loosestrife, and hybrid cattails. These invasive plants are proving difficult to control, and the outlook is not good for species such as the dusky-faced meadow katydid and marsh conehead. To my knowledge the once relatively widespread stripe-faced meadow katydid now is confined to a single site, and the slender conehead, never known from many locations, apparently is gone from the region.

Stripe-faced meadow katydid

Introductions have not been limited to plants. Several species of singing insects also have been imported. Roesel’s katydid is the most common of these in our region. A European predaceous katydid, Roesel’s was introduced to the Montreal, Quebec, area several decades ago and expanded from there. They occur in open habitats with tall herbaceous vegetation throughout the Chicago region. Japanese burrowing crickets are thought to have arrived at the port of Mobile and spread out from there. They are abundant as far north as Indianapolis, and common in Rensselaer in the southern part of our region. With scattered new appearances each year occurring as far north as DuPage County in Illinois, so far, I expect them to become widespread and abundant here. The tropical house cricket represents the possibility of other, short-term introductions that are unlikely to persist in our climate.

Roesel’s katydid

Sound Ideas: An Odd Trio

by Carl Strang

Today’s chapter in the Sound Ideas winter series is a recording from the evening of September 4 last year. I made it in the Miller Woods portion of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Three very different singing insects can be heard distinctly throughout:

The principal target of this recording produced the annoying, continuous buzzing sound. If you had been there, you would have remarked at how loud this insect was. It was a robust conehead.

Male robust conehead, singing posture

Male robust conehead, singing posture

This katydid has a sibling species, creatively named the false robust conehead (Neoconocephalus bivocatus). I haven’t documented bivocatus in the Chicago region, but there are a couple old possible records, so occasionally I record an individual and check the pulse rate and pattern. So far, all have been good old Neoconocephalus robustus.

The other two members of that night’s trio both produced regular, brief chirps: one higher pitched and very regular in its rhythm, the other much lower and a little less regular. The higher pitched singer is famous for the way its chirping rate varies with temperature: count the chirps in 13 seconds, and add 40 to get the degrees Fahrenheit. We know this singer as the snowy tree cricket.

Snowy tree cricket male, taking a break from singing to snack on skin.

Snowy tree cricket male, taking a break from singing to snack on skin.

That leaves the bass section. The lower pitched continuo is the product of a northern mole cricket. This swale area of Miller Woods is one of only 3 locations where I have found this species to date. I don’t have a photo to show you. True to his name, the mole cricket sings from within his tunnel, and I haven’t yet had a photo op with the critter.

Ah, yes. I see an insistent hand upraised in the back of the class. Yes? Ah, very good. Yes, there is a fourth, more intermittent performer here. Those few added chirps are a fall field cricket’s, practically ubiquitous at this point in the season, and determined to insert himself into any ensemble.

First and Last Song Dates

by Carl Strang

I now have 7 years’ data in which I have noted the first and last dates on which I heard each singing insect species. This year was characterized by a mild winter followed by a warm spring and then a summer of drought. The mild winter and spring apparently were responsible for this year’s early phenology. First song dates were the earliest I have recorded in DuPage County for 17 of the 21 species for which I have 7 years of records. The chi-squared value of 77.33 (with an expected value of 3 species per cell for each rank of earliest to latest) is, of course, statistically significant.

The greater angle-wing started earlier and finished earlier this year than in any of the previous 6 years.

The greater angle-wing started earlier and finished earlier this year than in any of the previous 6 years.

As for last song dates, singing insects generally finished early this year. Of the 20 species for which I have 7 years’ data, 15 had their earliest or second-earliest ending dates, and the chi-squared value was a statistically significant 22.68. This was not a particularly cold or dry late summer and autumn, so the implication is that singing insects have a fixed rate of attrition or duration of song season, so that an early start results in an early finish. The 12 species for which I have the best, most reliable records do have differences in observed song season lengths (ranges for the 7 years, and ranked lowest to highest: 18-42 days for Roesel’s katydid, 16-52 days for gladiator meadow katydid, 52-96 days for the greater angle-wing, 58-96 days for snowy tree cricket, 67-91 days for the scissor-grinder cicada, 64-94 days for the greenstriped grasshopper, 62-109 days for Linne’s cicada, 72-105 days for the dog day cicada, 81-107 days for the common true katydid, 107-139 days for Allard’s ground cricket, 111-141 days for striped ground cricket, and 113-143 days for Carolina ground cricket).

The number of clear, cold nights seemed high enough in November that they might partly explain the early conclusion of common ground cricket songs this year, especially given the recent study by MacMillan et al. (2012) indicating that there is a metabolic cost to recovering from cold-temperature paralysis. However, I found no significant relationship between last song dates and the number of November days with low temperatures below 33F over 2006-2012 for any of the three species (Spearman’s r values 0.51 for Allard’s ground cricket, -0.39 for striped ground cricket, and 0.33 for Carolina ground cricket). It is interesting, though, that I have seen a few red-legged grasshoppers active a couple weeks after the last ground cricket.

An early December red-legged grasshopper

An early December red-legged grasshopper

This bigger insect may have larger fat reserves to draw upon and so extend its season.

Learning to Identify Insect Songs

by Carl Strang

One of the obstacles to a singing insect monitoring program is the large number of various songs that need to be learned for identification. This is not really much different from learning bird songs for breeding bird monitoring, however (except that the total number of species is smaller here). Instead of being daunted by the entire process, it is possible to take the learning process in stages, beginning with the songs that are common and easy to recognize, the ones you have been hearing all along but simply didn’t have the species labels. Here is a list of a dozen suggested species to start with in the first stage: spring field cricket/fall field cricket (their songs are identical), Allard’s and striped ground crickets, snowy tree cricket, common true katydid, black-legged meadow katydid, greater angle-wing, round-tipped conehead, dog day cicada, scissor-grinder cicada, and Linne’s cicada (for more information on these species, try the tags at the head of this post).

Snowy tree cricket, one of the species on the starter list

This list and those that will follow are for northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana. There would be substitutions in other parts of the country (I encourage readers elsewhere to make comments here with their own suggestions). Go to reference recordings of these species’ songs, either on-line at the Singing Insects of North America website or through the CD that accompanies the Songs of Insects book. It is not too late this year to hear many of the species on this list on the warmer days, though some are finished or nearly so.

My recommended species list to focus on in the second stage of learning consists of 8 species and groups of species: greenstriped grasshopper, gladiator meadow katydid, Roesel’s katydid ( three species that sing relatively early in the season), and then later, Carolina ground cricket, Say’s trig, sword-bearing conehead, two-spotted/narrow-winged tree crickets (no need to worry yet about separating the two), and the meadow tree cricket group (3-4 species whose songs are essentially identical to the ear and will remain so).

Roesel’s katydid is a species from the second-stage list.

This list of common species either will take you to additional, though still readily available, habitats, or else require a little more of a practiced ear (which practice you got with the first species group). In particular, seek out and spend some time getting familiar with the songs of the Carolina ground cricket and Say’s trig. They need a little more effort to recognize in the field, but once you have them, they will be touchstones for many other species (much as robin songs are for learning bird vocalizations). If you are starting now, you might push the Carolina ground cricket to the first list, as it is one of the few species singing on the cooler days and evenings.

Once you have mastered the second list of species, you are ready for the more subtle distinctions needed to distinguish the songs in the third species list. This includes separating out the song of Linne’s cicada from similar songs by the lyric cicada, and in some areas, swamp and/or northern dusk-singing cicada.

Linne’s cicada

Also, by this point you are ready to distinguish the two-spotted tree cricket song from that of the narrow-winged tree cricket. Also, the broad-winged tree cricket should stand out now from other long-trilling species. In addition, you no doubt have noticed and begun to puzzle out other species that are more idiosyncratic in their distribution or smaller in numbers that you have encountered in your favorite places.

And that brings you to the fourth stage, learning the songs of whatever remaining species may live in the area you wish to monitor. For this you will need a regional guide. In the Chicago region, you can meet this need with the guide I am developing. It is available for free as a .pdf e-mail attachment. Simply request it at my work e-mail address:

As you are learning and listening, pay attention to which songs you can hear clearly, and at what distances, and which are marginal. This will inform the limitations you will need to address or acknowledge in your monitoring.

Chasing Coneheads 3: Slightly Musical Conehead

by Carl Strang

After finding all the slender coneheads Gideon needed, we drove around to assess the scope of their distribution at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. They proved to be abundant in the Great Marsh and other places. We heard other familiar singing insects as well. Then we heard a new one at another wetland, unfamiliar to me but well known to the Missouri grad students. We stopped and found one. This was the amusingly named slightly musical conehead.

This marsh katydid has an interrupted song that to my ear has the rhythm and tempo of a snowy tree cricket but with buzzes rather than clear toned chirps.

The slightly musical conehead has the most magnificent cone structure of all the North American species.

The cone is huge, and black on the length of its underside.

To me the most amazing feature of this species is its synchronized singing. All the males in an area sing in unison. When we disturbed the one we were stalking, he paused only for a few seconds and then started up again in rhythm with other males in earshot. “They must sing,” said Gideon, who also shared the information that this species avoids spots that have other conehead species with continuous songs.

First Song Dates, 2011

by Carl Strang

As I wrap up the year’s singing insects field study I am interested in making summary comparisons to earlier years. Last week I reported on block counts. Today’s focus is on first song dates.

The dog-day cicada’s first song date of July 4 was the fourth-earliest for that species among my 6 years of observations.

I have 6 years of first song date records for 23 species. None of the 2011 dates were earliest for a species, 1 was second-earliest, 5 were third-earliest, 10 were fourth-earliest, 3 were fifth-earliest, and 4 were latest. This was different from the expected even distribution of 3.8 in each category, and it produced a χ2 test statistic of 16.54, indicating a statistically significant departure from the expected (P<0.01). The biggest contribution to the χ2 value was from the middle-of-the-road fourth-earliest category, suggesting this was an unremarkable year for starts, neither early nor late.

The snowy tree cricket was another species whose first song date was fourth-earliest. The July 29 date was 16 days later than in 2010.

Focusing on the readily observed species, for which I have some confidence that my observations have strong validity, first song dates were a median of 9.5 days later in 2011 than in 2010 (n = 26 species, range 17 days earlier to 26 days later), and 2.5 days earlier in 2011 than in 2009 (n = 24 species, range 24 days earlier to 22 days later). Those values are comparable to the late flowering phenology pattern I observed at Mayslake Forest Preserve this year, which in turn reflected the soil-chilling February blizzard and the cool spring.

Block Count Summary

by Carl Strang

Neighborhood block counts are a survey method I have developed in my singing insects study. They consist of walks around the block in my residential neighborhood in Warrenville. I record the time and temperature, and count only the insects whose individual songs I can distinguish from the general background of tree cricket and ground cricket songs. I try to include a mix of times, especially early in the season to include cicadas, but concentrate most of the effort after dark when most species are singing. The overall species count in 2011 was 14 (no new species this year).

One of the streets on the block.

Most of these insects do not occur in high enough numbers to permit statistical comparisons between years. The high counts for each species this year were as follows: 1 for fall field cricket, jumping bush cricket, Say’s trig, and Davis’s tree cricket; 2 for Allard’s ground cricket and dog day cicada; 3 for snowy tree cricket, 4 for narrow-winged tree cricket, 5 for common true katydid, 8 for two-spotted tree cricket, 10 for Linne’s cicada, 14 for Carolina ground cricket, 16 for greater anglewing, and 26 for striped ground cricket. Most of these are typical of the past five years. Apart from statistical comparisons to follow, there seems to have been a decline in fall field crickets over that period (high counts of 5 in 2007, 4 in 2006, and 1 in the recent years, but in 2011 that count was on only one occasion).

Only three species occur consistently in large enough numbers to justify statistical comparisons between years. There never have been statistically significant differences between adjacent years in striped ground cricket counts, and the same was true in this year’s comparison with 2010 (overall medians 14.5 in both years; Mann-Whitney U-test, z = -0.14, P>0.01). Carolina ground crickets likewise were not different (median 4 in 2010, 7 in 2011; z = -2.07, P>0.01). Greater anglewing counts did show a statistically significant increase over last year (median 1 in 2010, 4 in 2011; z = -3.30, P < 0.01), and in general they and the fall field crickets have been the most volatile.

Peak Singing Insect Season Begins

by Carl Strang

By this point in the season we are hearing nearly all the common singing insects in northeast Illinois. First song dates on the whole have been in line with those of recent years, but a few have been relatively late and one was comparatively early.

Snowy tree cricket

My own first observations of singing males typical of residential neighborhoods have included Carolina ground cricket (19 July), common true katydid (also 19 July, a relatively early start for that species), Allard’s ground cricket (22 July), snowy tree cricket (29 July), fall field cricket (30 July, a relatively late start but I had been out of town for a week), two-spotted tree cricket (31 July), Say’s trig (31 July), and greater angle-winged katydid (4 August).

Greater angle-winged katydid

I didn’t get into forests at night until the Roger Raccoon Club campout, so my first date of August 3 for oblong-winged and rattler round-winged katydids has limited meaning. Another forest species that may have started up before my first observation of August 2 was the confused ground cricket.

Black-legged meadow katydid

Our most common large meadow katydid, the black-legged, started up around August 2, a relatively late start for this wetland-edge insect.

Song Peaks

by Carl Strang

My block count data allow me to look at when different kinds of singing insects are most active. I note the time of day for each count, and this year categorized four years’ counts with respect to number of hours before or after sunset.

Two-spotted tree crickets sang the most in the hour after sunset, then continued intermittently through the night.

Sample sizes were 1 count 5-6 hours before sunset, 3 counts 4-5 hours before sunset, 9 counts 3-4 hours before sunset, 13 counts 2-3 hours before sunset, 20 counts 1-2 hours before sunset, 29 counts 0-1 hour before sunset, 61 counts 0-1 hour after sunset, 59 counts 1-2 hours after sunset, 23 counts 2-3 hours after sunset, and 11 counts 3-4 hours after sunset. Some of these sample sizes are small enough to consider the results as tentative (especially for cicadas, which sing before sunset), but on the whole they seem to reflect my more general observations of activity peaks in DuPage County.

Snowy tree crickets peaked 2-3 hours after sunset. Some tree crickets like to nibble on human skin, given the chance.

I found the following peak singing times:  4-5 hours before sunset for Linne’s cicada, 1-2 hours before sunset for the dog day cicada, 0-1 hour after sunset for jumping bush cricket and two-spotted tree cricket, 1-2 hours after sunset for fall field cricket, snowy tree cricket, common true katydid and greater anglewing, 2-3 hours after sunset for striped ground cricket and Carolina ground cricket, and 3-4 hours after sunset for narrow-winged tree cricket.

Narrow-winged tree crickets showed the latest singing peak in my neighborhood, 3-4 hours after sunset.

One particular bias to keep in mind is that some loud singers may drown out others, reducing their counts. For instance, ground crickets are singing at the times when cicadas are active, but I can’t hear them above the cicadas’ loud drones.

Arboreal Tree Cricket Songs

by Carl Strang

This year I finally was able to resolve my confusion about the songs of three arboreal tree crickets. The first breakthrough came from observing singing male two-spotted tree crickets, as I mentioned in an earlier post.

Two-spotted tree cricket (male)

After further study I developed a description of the two-spotted tree cricket song that I feel confident about. Their songs are composed of variable-length trills, 1 second to 7 seconds or longer duration. Spaces between trills can be very short or longer, but when longer usually are filled by a stuttering sound. Often their song seems more discordant or strained than those of the others. Both two-spotted and narrow-winged tree cricket songs are distinctly higher pitched than the song of a common reference, the snowy tree cricket, but not necessarily well separated from one another. When there is a slight difference, the two-spotted has the slightly higher pitch.

Narrow-winged tree cricket

Trill length and the spaces between trills are very consistent in narrow-wings, forming a regular rhythm, unlike the variable two-spotteds. Spaces between always are distinct, longer than the brief pauses most characteristic of two-spotteds, and do not contain stutters. The trills are brief, a couple of seconds long. There was a difference in when the species started, with the first two-spotted singing at the beginning of August, narrow-wings not beginning until the end of the month. Both species continued to the end of September.

On two occasions I heard what could only be a Davis’s tree cricket. The long continuous trill, lower pitched than that of the snowy’s song, occasionally was broken. The cricket was well up in an ash tree. Though I only heard this one, I now suspect that I seldom hear them because their usual location is high in trees, according to the literature, where the higher-pitched chorus of other nocturnal crickets may obscure their songs. The lower pitch and much longer trill matches written descriptions in the literature, if not reference recordings (which give the impression that trills are more interrupted than in fact they are). For reference recordings, go to the Singing Insects of North America website or the Songs of Insects website.

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