Sitting on the porch one summer weekend afternoon, I became conscious of a great cacophony emanating from high in the trees and deep in the bushes, but of the many creatures buzzing, chirping, trilling, squawking, screaming, and clattering away, none was visible. Could I learn to distinguish any of these sounds and associate them with their respective species? And would I ever catch a glimpse of these secretive singers?
Over the years, I’ve often heard a strange-sounding call that resembles a cat’s meow, and I wondered whether the bird might have a cat-like name. Searching around on the internet for clues, I came upon the website for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which contains pictures, information, and recorded bird calls. And sure enough, there was a species called “catbird,” although its song was described as “complex,” including squeaks, whines, gurgles, whistles, and nasal tones. Even worse, like its relative the mockingbird, the catbird is a mimic, meaning that it imitates other birds’ songs, so there’s no telling what you might hear. But as I kept reading, I discovered its “mew” is distinct from its “song.” It was the “mew” that I’d been hearing.
While I’d heard the catbird for years, I’d never actually seen one, which is not surprising, since it’s described as “secretive” and a “skulker” which hops from branch to branch in thick tangles of vegetation, avoiding flight through open areas.
Then one morning while I was sitting on the porch, a small slate-gray bird with a dark crest on the top of its head popped out from a bush and hopped around in front of me.
Having identified the gray catbird, I began to listen more carefully to the vast array of voices outside the porch. I’d scroll through lists of local birds and cross-reference these with recorded songs on the Cornell Ornithology Lab website. This was a laborious process, because there were lots of birds to listen to, and lots of calls on the website, and it took a long time to find a match.
One of the most common calls was a high-pitched trilling, sometimes short, but often going on for a long time. Eventually I narrowed this down to one of the sparrow species. And then one morning, a handful of tiny birds appeared in front of the porch, chirping away as they poked around in the grass looking for seeds. They resembled the common sparrows you see everywhere, but for a brownish-red stripe on top of their heads, and this feature identified them as chipping sparrows.
Having seen and heard these tiny birds in the valley, I was surprised to encounter them again in the Catskills and the Adirondacks. They seem to get around.
I was starting to get the hang of this. The northern cardinal was easy to identify, both from its song and its shiny red feathers. While hiking in the Catskills, I heard the nasal “yank” of the red-breasted nuthatch, and then a small plump bird revealed itself for a moment on top of Wittenberg Mountain, the black and white stripes across its face and the rust-colored feathers on its breast providing the clues to its identity. I haven’t yet spotted the eastern wood-peewee or the white-throated sparrow, but I’ve recognized their distinctive calls.
Down in Chapel Hill, NC for a conference, I was taking a late afternoon walk and enjoying the raucous whining buzzing calls of the local cicadas. One pulsating song started out softly, gradually got louder and faster, and then faded. It made me think of a helicopter starting up, with the blade turning faster and faster, until suddenly the pilot kills the engine.
Another song sounded like the rowing machine at the local gym. There was a rasping noise reminiscent of someone pulling back on a cable, followed by a pause, with the same rhythm as a rower’s cadence.
A third cicada let loose a piercing whine that lasted for several seconds and then fell silent.
Upon returning to New York, I turned to the internet and was able to find good matches. The cicada with the helicopter-like song appears to be Linne’s cicada (Neotibicen linnei), named after Carl Linneaus, the 18th century Swedish naturalist known as the “father of taxonomy” for formalizing the modern scientific convention of using two-part latin names to identify different species.
The rowing-machine cicada would appear to be Robinson’s cicada.
The piercing whine belongs to the dog days cicada, so-called because it sings during the “dog days” of late summer, the time from July through August when Sirius the dog star rises with the sun, and when the weather is sultry, and people feel languid. The term, “Dog days,” is attributed to the ancient Greeks:
Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
On summer nights, star of stars,
Orion’s Dog they call it, brightest
Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
And fevers to suffering humanity.
— The Illiad
When wandering around in Chapel Hill, I’d noticed cicada bodies lying on the sidewalk, and I wondered why there were no visible signs of these insects in upstate New York, even though one hears the same songs. And then, a day or two later, I encountered this little fellow lying upside down on the sidewalk, his striking white stomach exposed while legs wiggled helplessly. I gently nudged him back on his feet. By way of thanks, he made a couple of clicks. I think it was a Linne’s cicada.
Why had I never encountered a New York cicada before? The 19th century naturalist and transcendental philosopher Henry David Thoreau wrote:
Objects are concealed from our view, not so much because they are out of the course of our visual ray, as because we do not bring our minds and eyes to bear on them….the greater part of the phenomena of Nature are for this reason concealed from us all our lives….A man sees only what concerns him.
— Henry David Thoreau, Autumnal Tints
Katydids sound like gardening shears: “click click click….clack clack clack clack.”
Scientists report that the male insects synchronize themselves into two groups that answer back and forth, and one night as I listened from the porch, at it sounded like this was happening, with the click’s and clack’s alternating. But then the sounds began to converge and overlap.
Perhaps the insects synchronized themselves within a single tree, but they probably couldn’t coordinate from trees on opposite sides of the yard. Indeed, sooner or later coordination must break down, otherwise you’d have to believe that millions of katydids could synchronize their songs across hundreds of miles of forest in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York, all clicking and clacking together at the same time.
I listened to two insects answering back and forth in a single tree. But after a while, I realized that it was a single insect.
Ernst Schrodinger, one of the founders of modern quantum physics, came up with the term “negative entropy” to describe the inherent distinguishing feature of life. By this he meant that living organisms create patterns of order, in contrast with the idea of “entropy,” the inevitable tendency towards disorder. The problem with this definition, however, is that it leaves open the question, order according to whom? The kaytdids might indeed be singing carefully synchronized songs full of meaning, but to me it was a clattering racket.
Symphony of Crickets
One evening around dusk, as I was waiting for the katydids to start up, I began to notice there was a greater variety of cricket songs than I had ever before appreciated. One cricket trilled incessantly, its fast-paced chirps ringing continuously day and night. This fits the description of the fast-calling tree cricket.
Other crickets chirped in bursts. I heard them sounding off on the left and the right, close and far, no apparent pattern to the songs, except that they all seemed to be in the same key.
Then one night, I noticed for the first time that different crickets were singing at different pitches. There were four or five separate tones, which combined to create an alien-sounding melody, full of dissonance and shifting rhythms, swirling around in the trees all around me.
Snowy Tree Cricket
The snowy tree cricket is familiar to many people because the pitch of its song depends on the temperature, but I had never seen one. I was familiar with ground crickets, which are small black insects you encounter in a pet store (where they’re sold as food for larger creatures), but I had never seen a snowy tree cricket, which is white and translucent.
One morning I emerged from the house and inspected a large magnolia tree which stands in front of the porch. A small white insect fluttered onto a leaf, then flitted behind it and disappeared.