Sunday, December 18, 2016

Large Presence in a Tiny Exoskeleton

Who would have guessed? 

The last cricket in the house this year should have been ground cricket, or possibly a Broad-winged Tree Cricket.

But this tiny individual? 

 Shortly after midnight on 12-17-16, he was singing like it was August. 

This feisty little cricket is a Handsome Trig (Phyllopalpus puchellus), and he has already lived about two months beyond his life span outdoors in a blackberry/grapevine tangle or in a shrub. I had positioned his little singing cage between the heat vent and the portable radiator, and the temperature must have been perfect.

I’ve written about these little beauties, their curious name, and their expanding range in 2014 and 2015, and you can read more about them by looking up Handsome Trigs on the right sidebar of this blog. 

So what’s different this year? 

The past several weeks is the longest period of time I’ve spent with trigs. I also had three of them in the house - one from eastern Cuyahoga County and two from Erie County – so I was able to compare the songs and behaviors of three individuals.  

A single Handsome Trig is surprisingly loud, especially for such a small individual. Although I enjoy having crickets in my little studio, sometimes a trig’s song can be too powerful to concentrate on my work and I’ll have to move him to the dining room or kitchen.

I’ve emphasized that their songs are much louder than those of ground crickets. Tree Crickets seem louder, but we humans also hear them very well because their pitches are significantly lower. Their songs are in the range of many bird songs, which is also a range that many of us simply hear better, especially as we get older. Handsome Trigs sing at 7000+ Hz, which is higher than many ground crickets but below most of the katydids. 

So how powerful are their songs? When I record ground crickets, I never need to lower the input level on my recorder. If I’m very close to a tree cricket, I’ll need to lower it a little. This little guy? I recorded him in the warm, quiet bathroom last night, and I had to decrease the level to minus 9 to keep the indicator light out of the red zone. 

While a Say’s Trig has a very smooth song, the Handsome Trig’s will sound scratchier or more crackling to us. It varies with the temperature, sounding smoother when the insect is warmer. I think of it as sparkling rather than crackling, and I find it delightful. 

Here are two Handsome Trigs singing next to each other, so they are at the same temperature (usually 68 degrees in our house).

Now let’s add the third one.  This is quite a nice little chorus. There are moments when you’ll be able to pick out one of the individuals, and other times when they will all blend perfectly. (There is also a tree cricket singing in the kitchen now.)

When I made this recording, all three singing cages were close together in the center of the dining room table. Dmitri, as usual was monitoring his beloved crickets.

Although this story is part of my “Tales from the Terrariums 2016” series, I can’t really keep Handsome Trigs in terrariums. These are tiny, acrobatic escape artists! They can squeeze right through a typical terrarium screen lid and will gladly do so. 

What about one of those plastic insect carriers? That should work, right?

Well, no, as I learned through experience a couple of years ago. How did he get out? Look at the space by the handle – it was just large enough for a trig, and easily accessible to an insect who can (and will) climb up anything.

It takes mesh fabric to keep them inside. In addition to safety, the other benefit for them is that they can climb it and even sing from it. When the heat is on, a trig can position himself on the side of his singing cage that is closest to the heat vent for added warmth that flows in through the top and the sides.

(For additional information on singing insects at home, I’d recommend “Singing Insects as Pets" from The Songs of Insects by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger and the chapter in John Himmelman’s Cricket Radio entitled “Assembling Your Cricket Radio.”)

Caring for them presents challenges. Not only are they small enough to easily escape and disappear, they are also the most impressive jumpers that have ever lived in this house. They seem to pop straight up like fleas or springtails. Often I don’t even see the jump - just the relocation. I've decided the movement is too fast for my eyes to register. 

While removing the singing cage lid, a trig can – and occasionally will – spring right out. I therefore work on an open surface – the kitchen counter - so I can see if he suddenly lands somewhere unexpected. We’ve gotten used to each other by now, though, so I find I often know how, when, and where he will move. He is also increasingly likely to simply step aside and wait for his fresh produce to descend. 

Since I haven’t kept Handsome Trigs in the house for more than a week in the past, I wasn’t certain what foods would most appeal to them. I set up the inside of the singing cages like “small plates,” and this has worked quite well.

I found organic Romaine lettuce to be acceptable – it’s a little softer and more leaf-like than iceberg lettuce. Fortunately, we live in an area where we can get organic lettuce, as pesticide residue can kill crickets. I drip water on his lettuce and rinse the mesh lid of his singing cage to provide moisture.

Ground crickets thrive on dry cricket food, and the Handsome Trigs nibble on it as well. All three trigs have absolutely loved the yellow water cubes (Cricket Quencher by Fluker) that provide a safe water substitute. Both the dry food and the water cubes are served in tiny medicine bottle caps left over from cat pills. 

Handsome Trigs seem to like tiny apple slices best of the various fruits I’ve offered. The apple is also a nice place to just hang out for a while as well. 

Grape halves are welcome, especially after they’ve been out for a few hours and have gotten soft.

I learned over time that if I place a couple small pieces of lettuce and maybe a small blackberry leaf in the singing cage, the trigs enjoy crawling between them. They sometimes choose to sing there as if between leaves on an actual plant.

In the wild, Handsome Trigs do not typically sing in the open. I may spot a trig on a twig or stem, but it likely will be a female. Males are usually on the underside of a leaf. If the leaf is folded or curled, so much the better. I have even found them in a fallen leaf on the ground, still singing from underneath or within a rolled-up hiding place. 

Only one Handsome Trig remains now, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He sings for hours as long as he’s warm. He explores his fresh food from the second I place it in his cage, and he jumps as impressively as ever.

Here he is on December 17th, singing in the warm, quiet bathroom away from cats, the grumbling refrigerator, the computer going through its backup, and the ticking kitchen clock. The furnace blower had just completed its cycle.  

His song was so powerful that I kept lowering the recording level until I reached minus nine to get out of the red zone. 

I could listen to him for hours.

In return for extra heat and a buffet of appealing food, I’ve been rewarded with the opportunity to study a tiny, fascinating cricket up close over time. Best of all, I am still hearing his cheerful, sparkling song resonating through the house even as temperatures drop into the single digits and wind-driven snow adheres to the windows.

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