Backyard Biology

Nature stories from my backyard and beyond

Nature Stories

Night Conversations

Friday, December 3, 2010

As the sun dips below the horizon and darkness settles on the land, it is the time of the night creatures. And much the same as their daytime brethren, these night creatures must communicate with each other. The talk is largly about community (where are my brothers and sisters), territory (who belongs where), sex (who to mate with), and food (where is my dinner) - much the same conversations that the daytime animals have.

Conversation in the night is spoken in many languages. Some speak in the language of smell. For instance, the male luna moth can detect the inviting perfume (pheromone) of the female from miles away. Others let wind do their talking. A male midge locates his love by the air vibrations caused by her wing beats. For some, the message of the night works with light. Thus the brilliant summertime display of the fireflies. And for still others, it is the pluck of the strings that signals their intent. Some male spiders vibrate their mates web to be recognized as a mate and not a meal.

For all of us but the most dedicated scientists, these languages are undecipherable. The one nighttime language accessible to us is that of sound. But what a language it is! The conversations we might overhear are well worth a trip outside any night of the year. And as the year progresses, the conversations as well as the conversationalists continually change.

Springtime is frog time. From the first spring peeper to grace us with his song (this year - PeeperFebruary 26), the frogs are up and about their business. The sound of this first peeper is the rallying cry for his brethren, for soon hundreds and thousands are singing from pools and swamps everywhere.
Others seem to heed the call as well, for soon the wood frogs and american toads had added their voices to the night. There is an urgency in their singing not found in our other frogs. For these three must mate, lay eggs and disperse back into the woods before summer arrives. Their songs are long gone before the green, pickerel and bullfrogs begin theirs.

If the frogs announce the arrival of spring with a shout, the crickets whisper in the summer. So soft and quiet are the first cricket songs that a few weeks pass before I am aware of them, but soon their song becomes a part of the night, the very definition of a summers night.
At first, cricket sounds seem to blend together, but as our senses become attuned to them, the voices of different species can be picked out. Some chirp while others trill. Some sing the high notes while others the bass. Some sing solo while others in chorus. And since the night is an universal time, it doesn’t bother me not to be able to put a face to each voice. Just knowing the voice is plenty.

As summer moves into fall, yet another group of voices is added to the nighttime chorus. katydidAutumn is clearly the season of the katydids. While it takes some practice to pick out individual crickets from the whole of the symphony, each katydid song is an individual, easily picked out from its fellow singers. From my back porch, I can recognize two very different singers. One sings from low bushes and tall grass. This one I have often collected and I know quite well. The other sings from the tops of trees, well out of reach and is just a voice without a face.

With the arrival of the cold weather, the frogs burrow down for their winters sleep and the crickets and katydids succumb to the falling temperatures. The nighttime conversations that I have enjoyed all season have fallen silent until next year.. But the winter brings a conversation all its own. Have you heard it? Does it talk to you as well?