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A lusty autumn chirp

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

Whichever type of tree cricket is singing, the slowly subsiding pace with every night does have meaning, a melancholy one. Crickets, like all insects, are coldblooded, which means that they depend on the outside temperature to warm up. As the temperatures at night drop, the end is drawing near. Or, in these bittersweet October nights, as it hovers between 50 and 60, there could be a reprieve. It could mean merely that the crickets have gotten lucky.

Some crickets, like field crickets, change to a courtship song once a female appears. Not our tree crickets. They simply stop singing. “Once the male gets a female, he doesn’t want to make a loud noise,” says Weissman. “Otherwise, other males will know there’s a female around. They may try to appropriate her. He wants to be loud until he gets a female, then he wants to keep things kinda quiet.”

Drawing a veil over the next interlude, once they have mated, and are ready to mate again, the males will resume singing. Females will lay fertilized eggs in trees or brush. “Tree crickets have only one generation a year,” Weissman says. “Females probably lay their eggs in the vegetation they live in.”

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What vegetation isn’t precisely clear. “A lot of them are generalists,” Weissman says. They love oak trees. They can live their entire lives without touching the ground. If you hope to attract some, follow the sound, not the plant it’s coming from, and plant more of it. One good practice is gardening with native plants, he says. Another is avoiding insecticides.

In movies, cricket song is used not just to connote nighttime, but also to establish mood in outdoor scenes. In the Southern California-set movie “Jerry Maguire,” in the garden scene in which Renee Zellweger tells Tom Cruise that she’s breaking up with him because although he loves her son, he only likes her, crickets throb in the background, as if pulsing for his stalled heart. The shrubbery was strung with Christmas lights. In reality, Southern California crickets would have stopped singing between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Rain, cold, general dilapidation from all that October singing and sex will have finished them off.

But who among us would make them as rare in movies as they are becoming in life? Cricket song, more than clapboard houses, red barns and smiling grandmothers, puts the heart in Americana.

“The older the period, the more crickets you would use,” Farkas says. “In small towns, it is something you would expect to hear. The more rural it is, the more you can get away with.” But Farkas loves cricket song so much he says, “I would put it in the middle of New York City if I could.”

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Americans are not alone in revering cricket song. In Asia, crickets are sold in cages, like songbirds. Bernardo Bertolucci used the caged singer as a poignant motif in “The Last Emperor.” But when the most-recorded singing insect in cinema was finally given an on-screen role, the filmmaker didn’t use its voice. “At the very end, it’s a katydid that calls out of that thing,” Weissman says. “That was terrible!”

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The backyard orchestra

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A healthy garden is a musical one. Here is a guide to some of the most common singing, buzzing and thumping insects in the Los Angeles area:

Tree crickets (Oecanthus fultoni, O. rileyi, O. californicus and O. argentinus): Small and green, live in trees and bushes. Prefer native plants. Sing from autumn to first rains. Two basic songs: Three sing with a continuous trill, dddd, and two with a pulsed er er er also often given as treet treet treet. May eat some foliage, but useful control for aphids and scale.

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Field crickets (Gryllus species): Like a cross between a grasshopper and a cockroach, and such beautiful singers that their song is often dubbed over East Coast scenes by L.A. sound engineers. Have different calling and courtship songs, and can be heard in spring as well as fall. Rare because of development and lawn chemicals.

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Katydids (Family Tettigoniidae): Jiminy Cricket might have been a katydid. Green or beige, leggy, look like grasshoppers. Males call at dusk with zeet, zip and buzzing sounds. Females respond with ticking sound.

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Jerusalem crickets: (Stenopelmatus species): Unique to California, big, 2-inch bugs with large heads, so curious-looking that they’re the most common insect brought by curious homeowners to the Museum of Natural History for identification. Harmless to plants. Excellent for children’s terrariums. They don’t sing, but thump. Differing thump rates have led scientists to believe there are many species.

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European house cricket (Acheta domesticus): Imported insect, sold in pet stores as fish bait. Gets in house walls and chirps, to the amusement of some, aggravation of others.

For more information

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Online: Go to buzz.ifas.ufl.edu/cricket .htm. This University of Florida site is the most valuable guide to crickets and their songs in the country. Superb general descriptions, links to research papers going back a century and individual songs available at a button.

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Reading: To understand bugs, and the myriad essential functions they perform in the garden, one book should be in every household: “Insects of the Los Angeles Basin” by Charles Hogue (Natural History Museum of L.A. County, $27.95).


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