Did she, or didn’t she? We may never know for sure, but this topic is tirelessly debated on summer nights by the katydids in our trees. Some say Katy did; others say Katy didn’t. What katydids lack in debating skills, they make up for with persistence. It’s the males that make these sounds, using special stridulatory organs located in a brown, triangular area at the base of their wings (see photo). One wing has a file-like structure, which is rubbed with the “scraper” located on the other wing, and the wings, which are bowed away from the body, create a hollow resonating chamber to amplify the sound. Of course, they are singing to attract females, so they are really saying “Here I am. Here I am. Here I am.”
A single katydid is loud, but when dozens of males sing at once they can fill the night with sound. Often males in one tree or area of the landscape will synchronize their songs, while another nearby group of males does the same, but on a different timing, resulting in the “debate” mentioned earlier. When large numbers of katydids are singing at once throughout the landscape, the “debate” becomes more of a cacophony.
Katydid songs are sometimes mistakenly attributed to cicadas, and vice-versa. After all, both insects sing in the trees during the summertime and it is hard to spot the singers themselves.
But there is an easy way to tell the difference. Cicadas sing during the day; katydids sing at night. Some species of cicadas sing at dusk, and there can be other exceptions, but in most cases, the insects we hear singing at night are katydids or crickets. Here we are discussing true katydids, but there are also several species of false katydids, which also sing at night.
If katydids are so common, why don’t we see these large insects more often? Katydids spend their lives high in the trees where we humans rarely go, and they are highly camouflaged. Their wings look like leaves and remaining motionless and relying on their camouflage is a katydid’s best defense against sharp-eyed blue jays. Despite having such large wings, katydids can’t fly, which means it important for them to remain in the trees and not go wandering around on the ground. When one spots a true katydid on or near the ground, it is usually after heavy wind or rainfall, or when felling or pruning trees.
Listen to these songs of true katydids. Be sure to compare the songs taped at 75 degrees to those taped at 55 degrees. Insects are cold-blooded and hence move slower and sing slower at cooler temperatures.
Compare katydid songs to those of one of our more common species of cicadas. There are quite a few species of cicadas in the Southeast and their songs vary considerably. These are songs of the scissor grinder cicada.
Blake Layton, Extension Entomology Specialist, Mississippi State University Extension Service.
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