Anticipating "Cricket Crawl 2012"

Greenbelt student Michelle Gaulty with one of the subjects of "Cricket Crawl 2012." She'll be analyzing trends in the data people report to see where crickets and katydids like to make their music. (Michelle Gaulty / August 20, 2012)

Ever notice how late summer nights come alive with the chirps and rhythmic whirrs of crickets and katydids? Now, just by stepping outside and listening for a minute or two, you can help scientists understand more about nature's symphony, and the unseen insects making all that music.

On Friday night, people all over the Baltimore-Washington area are invited to help with "Cricket Crawl 2012," the region's first sound-based census of crickets and katydids. It's so easy almost anyone can do it, and a scientist organizing it says the effort will provide valuable information about an underappreciated set of critters in our ecosystem.

Crickets and katydids are pretty harmless, for the most part, and crickets even are seen by some as bearers of good luck. They feed on plants, mainly, and by late summer they're ready to mate. The males generally call to the females by rubbing their wings together, creating the chorus of sounds heard at night or in early morning. 

But beyond their role as "little tiny tree and ground cows" munching on vegetation, there's a lot about them that scientists just don't know, says Sam Droege at the US Geological Survey in Beltsville. There are hundreds of species nationwide, he says, and perhaps 100 of them found here in Maryland.

"It’s uncharted territory," says Michelle Gaulty, a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, who'll be interning with Droege this year to look for trends in the data reported by the survey. "I’m wondering: Do crickets like a lot of housing? Do they like being near water?"

Those are just some of the questions Droege and his assistant hope that Marylanders and Washingtonians can help begin to answer through Cricket Crawl. Everyday people have been enlisted to help count birds, frogs, bees, you name it.  This "citizen science" survey is one of the easiest to take part in, Droege says, and one he hopes will catch on.

It takes only a minute or two of careful listening Friday night, between 8:15 p.m. and midnight, with a little time spent beforehand learning the calls of eight of the more distinctive-sounding species found in our landscape.

Cricket and katydid pictures and calls can be found and downloaded from a website here.  (Just listening to those has enhanced my appreciation of the evening chorus outside my house - a little like being able to pick out the different instruments in the orchestra.)

You can even join like-minded surveyors, if you prefer. Members of the Natural History Society of Maryland have organized meetups at various spots to go over the calls and socialize before going out on listening forays.

Reporting the data is easy, too.  Participants can call in and just leave a voice message, or send in what they heard by text, Tweet or email. Survey organizers hope at least some will send in photos if they can get them, and sound files (iPhones apparently have good recording fidelity, but standard cellphones, alas, do not).

Lastly, organizers say they hope to map the reports online as they receive them, and viewers can see results that night. That, Droege says, should be "exciting, in a small, crickety sort of way" to some people, though he acknowledges wryly that others might prefer to spend their Friday nights watching something with more action in it, like kickboxing.

But just this once, instead of going pub crawling this Friday night -- or before going, anyway -- why not join the "Cricket Crawl" and immerse yourself in a different kind of live music?

(If it rains Friday or is too cold for mating calls, the fallback date is Saturday.)

For more info, and to participate, go here.  For info on the meetups, go here.