Sometimes, nature comes to you when you’re least expecting it. This is the story of my chance, up-close encounter with a Tinkling Ground Cricket, a charming denizen of the woodlands of the eastern United States.
Discovering singing insects
Last year, I decided to learn more about the singing insects of my area—the crickets, katydids, and cicadas. There are several good resources (see the end of this post) guiding me in this enjoyable journey.
To get warmed up for this year’s singing insect season, I read Cricket Radio by John Himmelman several weeks ago. It’s an entertaining and educational book that combines natural history and personal observations on crickets and katydids. I highly recommend it.
The fairy bell-ringer
The first chapter in Cricket Radio starts out with a quote from Rachel Carson that first appeared in her article titled “Help Your Child to Wonder,” published in 1956 (a PDF of the article is online here-the quoted passages are on pages 47 and 48). She describes a singing insect that she calls the fairy bell-ringer that has a voice “… so ethereal, so delicate, so otherworldly …” She would hear the faint song but never was able to find the singer. Himmelman surmised that Carson may have heard either a Say’s Trig (Anaxipha exigua) or a Tinkling Ground Cricket (Allonemobius tinnulus). The description of the insect’s song piqued my interest, so I took a walk outdoors to try to hear it first hand.
I succeeded. I picked out a faint tinkling noise that emanated from the ground in my yard, although I couldn’t pinpoint where it originated. I compared it to the recordings of the Tinkling Ground Cricket and was certain it was the species I was hearing. The habitat also was right—the tinkling seemed to come from the leaf litter at the edge of an oak-hickory woodland. I was satisfied that I had heard a Tinkling Ground Cricket but, based on Carson’s writing, figured it would be futile to try to locate one. Chapter closed … or maybe not.
An unexpected but welcome visitor
A couple of days later, I entered my back door and noticed a small, dark cricket jumping into the room ahead of me. It stopped at the edge of a dark area rug and attempted to make itself invisible. I fetched a clean plastic jar, inverted it over the cricket, slid a piece of paper under the jar, and captured it. I stretched a breathable fabric lid across the top of the jar.
I consulted my resources and was amazed to identify my visitor as a male Tinkling Ground Cricket. The experts say that crickets take well to captivity, so I decided to keep and observe him for several days.
Care and feeding
My tinkler, as I called him, did seem to settle in nicely. I considered his temporary home a sort of cricket spa—he was kept comfortable, well-fed, away from the stress of competing with other males, and free from predators. He dined on lettuce, peach, and oats. He was meticulous about cleaning himself. He often would thread his long antennae slowly through his mouth, first one and then the other. He also would thoroughly clean each tarsus (the end of his leg, sort of like a foot). When he cleaned the tarsus of a rear jumping leg, he would contort it around to his mouth in a maneuver that a yoga practitioner would admire.
But can he sing?
During his first day in the cricket spa, I didn’t hear the tinkler sing. I even played the recorded Tinkling Ground Cricket songs for him, to no avail.
On Day 2, I was in an adjacent room and thought I heard a faint tinkle. When I neared his spa, I heard the tinkle clearly although, even at close range, it’s a very soft sound. I watched as he sang. He would raise his tiny upper wings (called tegmina) and move them back and forth rapidly. After several seconds, he would snap his wings down. He continued to sing for much of the rest of the day.
On Day 3, the tinkler was silent again. Maybe he didn’t sing because there were no potential mates in the spa. I decided it was time to return him to his natural habitat so he could get back to doing what crickets are supposed to do. I took the cricket spa outside and lowered it to the ground at the edge of the woods. I tapped gently–he jumped out and quickly disappeared into the leaf litter.
Stop and listen to the sounds of nature
A year ago, I didn’t know what a Tinkling Ground Cricket was. And, if I had heard its song, I wasn’t consciously aware of it. Now, I frequently hear the soft tinkling, both in my yard and elsewhere. It makes me smile.
Resources on singing insects
The Songs of Insects by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger (ISBN 978-0-618-66397-2) – This is a field guide to the 77 common species of crickets, katydids, locusts, and cicadas of eastern and central North America. It has descriptions, excellent photographs, range maps, and sonograms for each species. It comes with a CD of song recordings for each species. There’s an accompanying website.
Guide to the Night-Singing Insects of the Northeast by John Himmelman (ISBN 978-0-8117-3548-3) – This is a field guide to over 70 species of crickets and katydids of the northeastern United States. It has thorough descriptions and excellent illustrations by Michael DiGiorgio. It comes with a CD of song recordings for each species.
Cricket Radio—Tuning in the Night-Singing Insects by John Himmelman (ISBN 978-0-674-04690-0) – The author terms this the “why” of night-singing insects that complements the “how” of field guides. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the natural history of these insects as well as the author’s personal experiences with the insects during a lifetime of watching and listening to them. There’s an accompanying website.
Singing Insects of North America website – A guide to the crickets, katydids, and cicadas of America.
The Fairy Bell Ringer – a blog post by Wil Hershberger, co-author of The Songs of Insects.