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CHAPTER VI.
MEADOW SINGERS.

THE soft bleating note that comes to our ears from the marsh in summer time is that of the so called tree toad (Hyla versicolor), who was given his Latin name because he possesses an extraordinary ability to assume a color analogous with his surroundings. (Metachrosis is the term usually employed, meaning a shifting over from one color to another.) But it is a slow process with the little animal, who really requires quite a little time to “get over” from dull brown to bright green. He does this, however, and, according to the brown trunk, green leaf, gray stone, or green-white lichen on which he is perched, proceeds to match colors as a lady would in the purchasing of dress material. He is most commonly arrayed in warm gray.


Tree Toad.

The figure of the tree toad is not as charming as its voice or its color. He is covered with large and small warty excrescences from top to toe, and there is a prominent loose fold of skin across his yellow-white breast. He is short and stumpy in head and limb, as well as broad-toed; in fact, he is not aristocratic looking like his cousins Acris and Pickeringii. But his voice possesses a most winning, pathetic quality which I can only liken to the musical, bubbling bleat of a miniature lamb; there is something attractive and soothing about it. This should not be confused with the song of the common toad (Bufo Americanus), which can be closely imitated by whistling the note C two octaves above middle C and humming, sotto voce, A in the second octave below middle C, thus:

The tone is sustained uniformly for about four seconds, then an answer comes from across the pond a musical third lower — A in the treble and E in the bass.

Later in the summer we hear the combined voices of these singers in the hedges, by the roadside fence, in the orchard, and even on the border of the wood. In the northern parts of Vermont and New Hampshire I have rarely heard Hyla versicolor; but in the Highlands of the Hudson, on Long Island, and in various localities of New Jersey his voice is a very familiar one to me. The tone is not prolonged beyond two seconds (rarely a trifle over this), and it is characterized by a well-marked crepitation. The drowsy, droning voice of the common toad as he sings in the marshes in early summer is dual-toned and far more musical; indeed, it has all the mysterious charm of a soothing lullaby, and in my own mind it is intimately associated with the romantic, slow, introductory movement of Beethoven’s so-called Moonlight Sonata, a fitting musical interpretation of the peace and quiet of summer life in the country, just as the last, impetuous, hurried movement is interpretative of the restless, wearing life of the city.

Among the singers of the meadow not one is quite as attractive in appearance as the beautiful, pale, ivory-colored tree cricket (Œcanthus niveus). He is sometimes called the “snowy tree cricket,” as his ethereal body and glassy wings suggest a color which is the very antithesis of black. The song of this little creature does not issue from the grass, but from some tall weed stem or tree trunk. The tone is usually pitched in E and it recurs with rhythmical precision. Burroughs calls the Œcanthus the

“purring cricket,” and speaks of its song as coming “in waves,” which is not only true of the soloist but of the general chorus. The sound is regularly tossed back and forth like those sustained chords which occur early in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but the musical effect of the grand chorus is a distinct alternation of two tones thus:


an exact counterpart of the opening notes of the scherzo in the Third Symphony.

How under the moonlight (not sun!) it was possible for the great Beethoven to so exactly reproduce the music which one hears at night in midsummer among the Highlands of the Hudson in the vicinity of Anthony’s Nose and Storm King without ever having set his foot upon American soil it is difficult to imagine! For there are no singing fields in the old country, comparatively speaking; the meadows of England, Tuscany, or Switzerland in May, June, or August are silent — that, at least, is my remembrance of them. And I may also add that a field in the White Mountain region of New Hampshire is only half musical, again comparatively speaking. The meadow music which one may hear at twilight on Long Island, Staten Island, in the Catskill Mountains, in the Highlands of the Hudson, around Lake Mahopac in Putnam County, and in the vicinity of Niagara Falls, N. Y., in Saddle River, Bergen County, and the counties of Monmouth, Atlantic, and Salem in New Jersey, and in various parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, is far beyond what one will hear in either Maine or New Hampshire. I refer exclusively to insect music. On or about the first of September, when the wooded slopes of the Navesink Highlands, New Jersey, are thrilling with the songs of crickets and katydids, the woods and fields of northern New Hampshire are almost silent. But we can not expect everything all at once or in just one place; so it is the case that the woods of New Jersey do not know the song of the hermit thrush, but the forest glens beneath Eagle Cliff and Mount Kinsman, in the Franconia Range, N. H., echo his music from June until August.


But I must return to our tree crickets. The little Œcanthus niveus begins his trilling song at sunset and continues it throughout the night. He tunes his fiddle about the end of July, and does not finish his concert until the autumn days grow cold. I understand that the female of this species deposits her eggs in the pithy stems of the raspberry and blackberry vines and thereby causes much trouble for the small-fruit grower.

Another closely allied species is called the broad-winged climbing cricket (Œcanthus latipennis). This cricket is larger than the preceding, and differs very slightly in color from it; it is ivory-white. The elytra — that is, the two superior wing covers — are glassy and perfectly transparent. It differs from the species Œ. niveus in having the top of the head and lower half of the antennæ suffused with pink or pink-brown; it also generally, if not always, lacks the small gray-brown spots which are invariably present in Œ. niveus on the lower face of the two lowest joints of the antennæ. The song of this broad-winged cricket need not be confused with that of Œ. niveus; it is like a continuous, shrill, high-pitched rattle-whistle.


Broad-winged Climbing Cricket.

Œcanthus latipennis, it is said, prefers the shoots of the grapevine in which to lay its eggs. It is distributed southward and westward, but doubtfully as far Northwest as Rock Island, Ill. It does not occur in the Northeastern States.


Tree Cricket
Œ. fasciatus.

The most remarkable tree cricket is that named Œcanthus fasciatus. This little creature sings all day and all night, in sunshine, cloud shadow, and dusky evening. Its favorite resort is the weedy roadside, or the hedges where tall sunflowers and goldenrods abound. It sings about the middle of August and continues until the time of frost. The predominating color of the wings is white tinted green, but the body varies from an ivory-white marked with gray-brown to black. In typical specimens the head and its vicinity are whitish, with three distinct gray-brown or dark-brown stripes. The song of Œ. fasciatus is shrill and rapid; it is varied in length, lasting from two or three seconds to one or two minutes without interruption. During the performance the wings of tree crickets are raised to a perpendicular position and vibrate so rapidly that the motion is not discernible. The notes of Œ. fasciatus occur at the rate of from twelve to sixteen a second, thus:

These marvelous little musicians with the glassy wings can outdo the swiftest “presto” of the piano virtuoso, by producing nearly one thousand notes per minute! The geographical range of Œ. fasciatus is the same as that of Œ. niveus, from southern New England to Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and southward.1 It is larger than Œ. niveus and has the longest antennæ of all the species.

Œcanthus angustipennis is a narrow-winged species, less common in the West than the species already mentioned, and more at home in the broad meadows than fasciatus. The species Œ. angustipennis, Œ. latipennis, and Œ. niveus prefer the cultivated field to the weedy wayside.

This slender cricket is white, deeply suffused with green, has longer and slenderer hind legs than those of the other species, and a smaller head. The song resembles that of Œ. fasciatus, but is less shrill, and lasts but from three to five seconds, with intervals of corresponding length.


Narrow-winged Tree Cricket.

The song is usually heard at night. Both the song and the singer have been confusedly connected with the rhythmical Œ. niveus; an attentive ear, however, can not fail to detect a wide difference in the songs. Œ. niveus utters its t-re-ee, t-re-ee, t-re-ee, in metronome time, fifty trills occurring in a minute — Jerome McNeil says seventy, but I give the results of my own personal experience. In different kinds of weather crickets sing faster or slower. In the case of Œ. angustipennis the song is slower than that of Œ. niveus.

The tree crickets are remarkable for their rhythmical music, and however out of time the voices may be for a short season, they inevitably become synchronous or antiphonal, and to my ear some large section of the grand chorus is always antiphonal. This perfectly charming effect of musical tones being tossed back and fourth, which I have already referred to as exactly reproducing the opening notes of the scherzo in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, is what Thoreau heard when he likened the sound to “slumberous breathing,” and what William Hamilton Gibson called “a pulsating vesper chorus... a lullaby between the evening and the morning twilights.” Hawthorn describes it as an “audible stillness,” and makes his Canterbury poet think “that if moonlight could be heard, it would sound just like that.” Of all the music in the moonlit field which holds our ears entranced as we linger on the highway, this is the sweetest and best; it is the cricket’s love song! I often wonder why Irving did not allude to it in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, because just near the bridge where the superstitious schoolmaster “lost his head” the music of Œ. niveus is rife from late August to the time when the days grow cold.2



Meadow Grasshopper.

A far less musical singer than the tree cricket lives in the meadow grasses, and favors us in broadest daylight in the warm days of July with his gip, gip, gip, gip-zee-e-e-e-e-e-e! This is the common meadow grasshopper Orchelimum vulgare. He is green, and he has long antennæ, so he must not be confused with the short, stumpy-feelered, red-legged locust, who is wrongly called a grasshopper. The Orchelimum is a delicately modeled creature, about an inch long, with transparent wings through which one may readily see the green body. His legs are slender, and at the shoulder end of each wing is the hard, glassy formation which, when the wing is rapidly vibrated, rubs on the concave expansion of the other wing and causes the sharp, zipping sound.

The locust (grasshopper) in flying, in a very different way, produces a clapping or snapping sound with his wings.3 The green grasshopper is a day singer, who revels in the noontime heat with the mercury standing at 90°.

The brown cricket (Gryllus abbreviatus),4 common in the Middle States, who lives in the pastures and the grassy borders of the road, is a daylight and twilight singer; his sharp musical note also thrills interruptedly from sunset to sunrise along with the softer and more regular note of the white cricket. In June and July the meadows and wooded pastures are filled with the cricket’s music. His chirp is fitful and shrill; it is not really a trill, but the rapid repetition of a single note from three to five times with irregular intervals. I can not rely on the black cricket for three-four time or six-eight time; he “gangs his ain gait,” as the Scotchman would say, and leaves me and my metronome to go mine. This is not the case with the white cricket; he is the soul of rhythmical accuracy. Our brown cricket, like the grasshopper, makes his music by a rapid vibration of his wings. The song is produced by a rubbing together of the superior wings, which are hard, glassy, and roughened on their contiguous edges; thus, the rapid flitting of the wings produces the musical stridulation — more musical and less stridulous, however, than the grasshopper’s zigging note. It is, of course, scarcely necessary for me to remark that it is not the female but the male insect who is always the musician.


Brown Cricket, and tiny Spotted Cricket.

There are several species of crickets which are common. The one I have already mentioned is most generally found in fields and on roadsides; it is what is called a social cricket — that is, it lives with its fellows and does not inhabit a burrow. Another common cricket (Gryllus Pennsylvanicus) burrows under every stone in my garden; he is not a social character.

The tiny spotted cricket (Nemobius vittatus), of a brownish striped color, is still another singer whose spasmodic, interrupted chirp is constantly heard in the fields during late summer and early autumn, from New Hampshire to Maryland and Nebraska. This musician has a variable song made up of a trill and a sharp preparatory click, thus:

During his singing his wings are elevated at a considerable angle from the body.

Still another meadow singer is the cone-headed grasshopper (Conocephalus ensiger). This is the commonest species east of the Rocky Mountains, and the most familiar bright, light green insect of the cultivated field, as well as the salt marshes near the seashore. Rarely he is a brownish straw color, but in any case his narrow, pointed forehead is a sufficient proof of his identity; he is, besides, a very long, slender grasshopper, with extremely long fine feelers and a sharp, rasping voice, quite unlike that of any of the other meadow musicians. His note is an emphatic, suddenly loud s-szip, s-szip, s-snip, s-szip, continuous, rapid, and penetrating beyond description. In fact, it is one of the least interesting and most ear-ringing voices of the meadow or roadside. He is sharp-toothed, too, as well as sharp-tongued, a fact which I have more than once ascertained by a too intimate acquaintance with the really handsome insect; but William Hamilton Gibson makes game of him, and calls him “the clown of all this heyday” so justly that we certainly should read Singing Wings5 for the sake of this amusing and fuller description.


Cone-headed Grasshopper.

But speaking of “biters” reminds me of another sharp-toothed character, whose vicious nip is sometimes sufficiently tenacious to cause him the loss of his head. The katydid (Microcentrum retinervis) is a frequent singer on the highway in the evening hours. He looks like a large green grasshopper, but he has larger wings, which are leaflike and delicately veined; his antennae are much longer than his body, and his slender, long legs give him a peculiarly distinguished appearance, quite superior to that of a plebeian grasshopper. The katydid lives among the trees and hides under the leaves in the daytime, but as soon as the sun sets emerges from seclusion and begins his “petulant and shrill” tirade. Dr. Holmes calls him a “testy little dogmatist,” and, as William Hamilton Gibson remarks, falls into an excusable entomological error by accusing the particular insect which he heard of being a female with a quivering, trilling voice! But in this case, the truth is, the male insects do all the disputing. The katydid’s voice is too familiar to need comment or description here. The tones are harsh and uttered in triplets like detached bits of the cicada’s zee-e-e-e-e (the locust), but the method by which the noise is produced is curious. In the upper portion of each green wing cover, near the point where it is joined to the body, just where it overlaps the other, is a glassy formation set in a sort of frame; as the insect opens and shuts its wing covers, these frames strike each other, and the result is the zig-zig-zig which we know so well. On or about the first of September the wooded slopes of the Highlands of Navesink resound with the quarrelsome voices of these curious insects; in the White Mountains I do not recollect of having heard even a single disputer “having it all his own way.”

There are two common species of the katydid, the one above described being the most abundant in the Northern States; it is usually called the angular-winged katydid. The other species, also common in the Central and Eastern States, is named Cyrtophyllus concavus; its wing covers are longer than its wings, and they are broadly convex.

The so-called grasshopper with very short feelers, who is usually decked out in a variety of colors, is really a locust. The commonest species in our Eastern fields is called Melanoplus femur-rubrum, or, in straight English, the red-legged locust.6 This destructive insect is widely distributed over the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. It swarms on the grassy intervales of the White Mountain region, and covers the broad meadows of New Jersey; it is everywhere, and always a perfect nuisance, devouring every green thing, and even relishing the flavor of a silk umbrella or a dainty muslin dress.7 Beware the locust! for besides his awkward habit of staining one’s clothing with “molasses,” he will make a dainty repast off a silk handkerchief or the printed flowers of a lawn dress! His song is a somewhat pianissimo z-ee-e-e-e, which is produced by scraping or rubbing his legs against his hard-shell wing covers; he is, in fact, a veritable fiddler in the grand orchestra of the meadow. One musician does not count for much in the noontime symphony of the singing wings, but when two hundred thousand bowstrings are in full swing there can be no doubt about who supplies the orchestra with its first violins! Although the locust’s music is but an obligato accompaniment to the high-pitched, ringing voices of the soloists, it soothes the ear with a drowsy hum, which is the very embodiment of midsummer peace and “audible stillness.”


Red-legged Locust.


Melanoplus atlanis, similar to M. femur-rubrum.


X, Left wing of Œ. niveus, showing the portion from A to B used for singing. Z, Left wing of Orchelimum, showing the vein in black at C used for singing. Both drawings are copied from cuts found in several publications —neither are true to nature; compare with the succeeding drawing of niveus wing, and the wing on drawing of Orchelimum.

A rather large locust (Trimerotropis verruculata) is quite common on the intervales of the White Mountain district. This creature flies like a bird, and snaps his wings at will during his devious flight. He skims along with a sudden klack, klack, klack, klack, and gives a dip at each “klack,” much in the same fashion that the yellowbird utters its joyous chirrup during its undulating flight through the twilight sky.

This insect is most commonly seen in the latter part of August and throughout September; it is very common on the meadows of Campton, N. H.

The locust called Stenobothrus curtipennis, a very common species at once recognized by its very short wings, also sings in the Campton meadows. This musician uses both legs at once, and scrapes his wing covers in somewhat syncopated time. But to distinguish his music from that of the other members of the orchestra is a difficult task. His hissing notes, given out at the rate of six to a second, continue for about two seconds, then a short pause and da capo. This music is not nearly as loud as that of the Orchelimum, nor as continuous; but it has the same hissing quality. The notes of Melanoplus femur-rubrum are irregular in length. Every grasshopper has his own song;8 the notes of no two species are exactly alike, so if we will listen attentively to an occasional individual song which comes to our ears from the border of the field, we can at least be sure what kind of a creature it is which sings.


Wing of Œ. niveus  from life.

I must not omit to class among the meadow singers the grasshopper sparrow, or yellow-winged sparrow (Ammodramus Savannarum passerinus), sometimes wrongly called the Savannah sparrow. This bird has the remarkable gift of imitation to such a degree that we can scarcely distinguish his zigging, continuous note from that of the Orchelimum. His crown is black with a stripe of light dull yellow through the center; his back is streaked with black, brown, red, and ashy gray, and on his shoulders are edgings of yellow.


Short-winged Locust.

The yellow-winged sparrow nests upon the ground, and lays four or five gray-white eggs speckled with brown. Very frequently this bird appears on the grassy roadside, where it flits about shyly in and out among the weeds and the ferns, every other moment indulging in the peculiar, unmusical “sissing” note.

__________________________

1 Œ. fasciatus is reported as abundant along the roadsides of Champaign Co., Illinois

2 As the night when the schoolmaster rode abroad was a cloudy one, possibly the tree crickets were not singing as usual; a warm moonlight night is the best one for cricket music.

3 See Trimerotropis verruculata.

4 G. neglectus is the most common New England cricket. G. luctuosus is also common; its fore wings are very long and project beyond the abdomen. It is one of our largest crickets.

5 See Harper’s Magazine for 1886, vol. lxxiii.

6 Another common species is Melanoplus atlanis, similar to the one described.

7 In Canada and New England some years ago his ravages were particularly extensive and destructive.

8 Scudder says that these insects stridulate in four different ways, viz.:

First. By rubbing the base of one wing cover upon another, using for that purpose the veins running through the middle portion of the wing. This method includes the common crickets and the tree crickets.

Second. By a similar method, but using the veins of the inner part of the wing. This method includes the green or long-horned grasshoppers.

Third. By rubbing the inner surface of the hind legs against the outer surface of the wing covers. This method includes certain locusts or short-horned jumping grasshoppers.

Fourth. By rubbing together the upper surface of the front edge of the wings and the under surface of the wing covers. This method includes the locusts which stridulate during flight.


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