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A lusty autumn chirp

In the movies, crickets sing year-round. Now's the time for their live performance.

October 09, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Crickets sing in much of the world, but it took Hollywood to make them the sound of nighttime in America. A porch door doesn't creak in an American movie without cricket song swelling from the background. "In 15 years, I have never done a night scene without crickets," says sound editor Arthur Farkas, who has about 30 films to his credit. He reckons that his personal sound library alone has 200 cricket tapes, each varying in speed, intensity and mood.

Though crickets sing year-round in Hollywood movies, their song is rare in Los Angeles itself. Here, they sing only in the lengthening nights of autumn, tonight, tomorrow night and every night until they are worn out or a sudden chill does them in.

Waiting for the song can be a wretched business. Every year they seem to be late. Or perhaps the most admiring among us simply long for their song so keenly that we anticipate it early. July passes with fireworks, slamming car doors and, at best, the peeps of passing bats. Where are they? August brings car alarms, police helicopters and stereos. Please let that sweet song rise again through our urban din.

But, in mid-September, just as the anticipation tips toward anguish, suddenly our local crickets explode into song. They sing in the Hollywood Hills, in the Santa Monica Mountains, in the San Gabriels and in hospitable gardens across the basins and valleys. As their choruses rise out of nowhere, relief turns to joy, joy to marvel.

Think about it, and autumn cricket song is a natural wonder, on par with whale season, or the migration of monarchs, or beehives swarming, ready to move with a new queen. Or, as far as the crickets are concerned, it's time to have sex.

Yes, America's lullaby is a mating call. John Ashcroft wouldn't approve, but there aren't enough cricket experts around for it to have come to his attention. Cricket song may have made the big time in show business, but the bugs have been comparatively snubbed by entomology. For the study of an insect to attract big grants in California, it helps if it's an agricultural pest. California crickets are largely benign, even beneficial because they eat aphids.

Start poking around academe for cricket-ologists, and all signs lead to Los Gatos, to one man. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County recommended him. So did the U.S. Geological Survey offices in San Diego, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the University of California at Davis. He is anesthesiologist David Weissman.

In addition to being a physician, he's also got a doctorate in entomology, he explains. He practices medicine by morning and studies crickets in the afternoon. There have been great cricket scholars, just not very many of them. "A lot of the cricket work was done east of the Mississippi in the '50s, '60s and '70s," he says, "Nobody'd done anything on the West till I came around." He's about to publish a 25-year-long study of Western field crickets.

Alas, many of us will hear these only in movies. In Los Angeles, field crickets have gone the way of fields. "The ones that you're mostly hearing now in Los Angeles are tree crickets," he says. "The reason they come late is they over-winter as eggs, as opposed to juveniles. It's not until the weather warms up that the eggs hatch." They mature in the summer, he explains, and are ready to sing only in fall.

The ones we hear are males, and they are singing to attract females. In crickets, it's not size, but sound that matters. Crickets sing by rubbing their wings together. The louder the cricket, the more likely it is healthy.

Although birders can often perform bird calls, crickets, it seems, are inimitable. Even the preeminent Western cricket-ologist offers no more than an approximation of the calling rhythm. "At any one area, you may have one to five [species of] tree crickets," says Weissman. "Each species has its own song. There are species that trill, just dddddddd; then you have two species that go er er er."

The ones behind our stirring autumn serenade make the er er er sound, he says. They're called snowy tree crickets, and we're so taken by them because of their orchestral habit of singing in unison. "Nobody knows why," says Weissman, "but it could be that by synchronizing they sound louder and the females are more attracted."

The rate of song reflects the climate. If it's a hot night, they sing fast; a cool one, they slow down. The tendency earned them the nickname "thermometer crickets." There is even a charmingly geeky formula whereby you count the number of chirps in 13 seconds, then add 40 to calculate the temperature. But the reliability of this party trick came into question when cricket experts realized that another species of tree cricket chirped half as fast at the same temperature. "It's easier to just pull out a thermometer," says Weissman.

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