Crickets: A Love Song to Late Summer

In April, I promised myself that I would savor the summer day by day, with the mantra: “Be here now.” But now that September is upon us, the fall field crickets (gryllus pennsyslvanicus) are calling time and, as usual, they’ve triggered the onset of my annual autumnal melancholy. Winter is coming. Woe is me.

On Cape Ann — the fist-shaped peninsula just north of Boston where I spend the best part of my summer — the crickets are insistent and incessant from midsummer until the first frost. They sing all day and all night for months, with only a pause around dawn when the birds make themselves known. I suppose I ignore the relentless daytime chirp the way I tune out supermarket Muzak.

But by late summer, it seems to me there is more urgency to the crickets’ song and come nightfall, they hold center stage. They are interrupted — only rarely — by the whooshing of an occasional car, or the voice of a Red Sox broadcaster floating through a window calling balls and strikes, followed by groans from the fans watching inside. (It’s been that kind of season.)

And then they fill the air with a high-pitched, shrill pulse that makes the night seem to vibrate.

The human ear hears the crickets’ call at about one per second when, in fact, each of those seconds contains three, four or five pulses — accomplished by rubbing their upper and lower wings against one another.

On cool nights, the tempo slows into lullaby mode — the kind you get on a friendly sleep app. But when heat and humidity remain high, the sound throbs from all sides: a nearby bush seems to include some separate voices, while the meadow’s chorus is as tight as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Sometimes in the heat, it sounds to me like they are screaming, which, it turns out, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Racket or lullaby, the cricket’s song is an invitation from male to female crickets in what might be their version of the Marvin Gaye slow jam, “Let’s Get It On,” but at a frequency of approximately 4 to 5 kilohertz per second.

This autumnal saturnalia has a springtime counterpart in the song of the inch-long amphibians known as peepers (genus pseudacris) — also known as chorus frogs.

They thaw out in wetlands as soon as the ice melts and announce their presence with a sound that has been compared to the high-pitched call of baby chicks (peep peep) — if Symphony Hall was full of them. In such large numbers, they also sound like sleigh bells — on a sleigh the size of a 747. The noise comes from a vocal sack on its chin that expands and deflates like a cartoon balloon.

When peepers are plentiful, the competition for mates gets crazy and so does the volume. Their collective call also throbs, fast, loud and high enough to raise the hairs on the back of a sensitive neck.

I welcome the return of the peepers, but not for the delight of their song or the miracle of their return in a world where the normal cycles of animal life cannot be taken for granted. I don’t give a fig for the procreative needs of the rowdy chorus frogs. After a week of peeps, their promise of spring sounds like a mean tease. I don’t think about how stupid it is to wish time would speed up so I can wear sandals. 

I love fall in New England. I tell out-of-town friends to visit in September or October not only for the foliage, but for the freshness of the air and the late afternoon light. And still, September crickets have always sound like a warning knell.

And then it came to me: on a perfect night in late August, drunk on the ambrosia of local tomatoes and corn, I heard the cricket’s singing as a serenade rather than a dirge, and smiled.

Rebranding does not quell the inner sigh (here come the boots and wool socks) but I do have a choice. And it feels like a reprieve.


Published September 9, 2022  Cognoscenti


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