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June 2012
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Katydid chorus

By Steve Vantreese

Whether Katy did or didn't is a moot point.

We'll make no moral judgments about her, whoever Katy is. But the endless stream of declarations on those opposing views becomes the soundtrack of our summer nights.

It's happening now and will go on into early autumn at least. Wait until nightfall, go out into the lawn, the field or the woods edge and just listen. It should be audible in most places with greenery. In some places it will be well above audible, maybe annoying, almost maddening if you can't tune it out.

"Katy did. Katy didn't," sometimes multiplied by countless narrators, overlapping and continuing unceasingly.

The sound is so pervasive, so saturated into the summer night that people begin to ignore it despite its omnipresent tinny cacophony. It's like standing at the edge on an ocean; after a good while, you don't hear the waves so much.

Many people who've at least considered the sound write it off as tree frogs or toads or some sort of amphibians. Others make an assumption that it is cicadas â “ or locusts, as they might errantly identify them. (Cicadas certainly sing by day now, but it's a different kind of sound, and it stops with nightfall.)

The night call itself tells us in a general sense what's making that call. It's green but no frog nor cicada. The singer of summer nights is, as the song suggests, the katydid. It's a green grasshopper-like insect. All that nocturnal racket tells us they're not rare, but then, they're not all that frequently seen, either.

Katydids come in varied species, but in this neck of the woods, what seems to be the most common â “ and certainly the one most heard â “ is the common true katydid. That is a proper name for the Pterophylla camellifolia.

This routine katydid is vivid green with wings that are rather tall in perspective to its two-inch long body. The veined wings look convincingly like leaves, a mimicry that probably spares some of the katydids from predators like birds, lizards, snakes, small mammals, etc.

If you look at one of those green "leaves" with grasshopper legs, you'll also notice that it has very prominent antennae. Those feelers are fine but quite long â “ two to three times the length of the body.

Both male and female katydid sing, so to speak, with that mildly raspy call. The call is said to be made by rubbing their forelegs together. I've heard an unfathomable number of katydid calls, and I've seen quite a lot of katydids. I can't swear I've ever seen one calling, however. Most people couldn't.

The calling is to help males and females rendezvous to prepare the females for laying eggs in the autumn. Like many insects, the adult katydids die with the onset of cold weather. But the eggs overwinter out there and hatch a new crop of youngsters in the next warm season. The immature katydids grow into adults by about July or August and take over the singing and baby-making business â “ before chilly fall arrives again and they, too, die at the end of their one-year cycle.

The most notice we give katydids by far is just hearing their mating season song. Our night soundtrack starts with chorus frogs, toads, tree frogs and other little hoppers in the spring. But somewhere along the way the froggy background music fades as summer gets serious. And katydids pick it up as the amphibian set grows quiet.

Folklore has it that the earliest katydid singing means it's just six weeks until the first chill of autumn â “ or that we've only got six weeks of summer left, however you look at it. Either it's going to be an early fall or the katydid have jumped the gun, however. They've been in fine voice seemingly since early July.

As mentioned, the katydids we associate with their namesake call are the common true katydids. A few other species might be found across Kentucky habitats, but these species make calls that sound more like what we'd expect from their cousins, the crickets.

Even among common true katydids, there is some variation in calls based on what part of their range in which they exist.

Hereabouts, katydids seem to call with what is termed a northern "voice," even though that same sound is made by katydids that hail from habitats way down in Dixie as well as the upper Midwest.

If you have any doubt what our katydids sing in the summer night, take a computer jaunt onto the Internet to a site that has sample recordings of these insects. There are a few such sites available.

Try an audio recording in a video format on this Youtube site: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7z0jGc.

Another is found at www.fps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/true_katydid, scrolling down to and clicking on True katydid, Sound #2. Copy and paste one of these addresses in a browser. Otherwise, if you find the site coding too long and goofy to keep straight, try running a search on "katydid sounds" and look for some recording of a common true katydid, especially one of the northern voice.

Or just step out the door after dark and listen to the night. You can hardly miss it, and what you hear almost certainly will be a whole choir of common true katydids.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be reached at outdoors@paducahsun.com.

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