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October 18. 2013 11:31PM

Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Cricket's chirp an alarm signaling winter's on the way


 
Henry David Thoreau in his Journal for 1854, wrote: "When I have stayed out thus till late many miles from home, and have heard a cricket begin to chirp loudest near me in the grass, I have felt that I was not far from home after all. ..."

Each autumn as the nights begin to lengthen, I listen for the first cricket's oft-repeated chirp. There is something about the sound of a cricket in fall that urges me to lay a small pyre in the fireplace. The cricket is one who raises the alarm that winter's on its way. Generally speaking, if bird songs announce the spring, it must follow that insects announce the summer and fall. As weather warms, the hum of the mosquitoes' wings becomes an annoyance. And when the summer's sun fashions a "scorcher," or "a perfect hay-day," that day is accompanied by the constant and continual song of cicadas. As I am no longer out in the hay fields, I haven't heard a cicada for some time.

A few weeks ago my good friend Ted Walski, biologist for the N.H. Fish and Game Department, left a copy of a New York Times article titled "17 Years to Hatch an Invasion." I found the piece interesting reading as it referred to a particular species of cicada within the so-called "periodical cicadas" group. Depending on the species, local members of this group have synchronized broods and each stage a massive emergence. One species emergence occurs once in every 13 years and another species every 17 years. These emergences become most conspicuous before disappearing again. Most cicadas have staggered generations so some adults emerge each year. Members of those species are the ones we hear singing in our hay fields each summer.

Readers who wish to hear the cicadas mentioned above sing, it can be done within Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger's book, "The Songs of Insects," published by Houghton Mifflin. Their book depicts 250 color photographs of 77 common species of cicadas, crickets, katydids and grasshoppers. There is a full color photograph of each insect and also their voices (if I may use that expression) can be heard on an enclosed beautifully recorded audio CD that is track-keyed to the book's text.

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Questions about bluebirds and squirrels were raised by a Rumney reader who wrote in part: "Every fall I clean out all of my bluebird houses so they will be ready for the arrival of the birds in the spring. I had two nesting pair this year and a couple of weeks ago there were six bluebirds checking out the houses. When talking with my daughter who lives in Maine, she noted that her bluebirds were back checking out houses. We also talked about the fact that last winter during one of the coldest and windiest times, the bluebirds were here and she thinks that they, or some other birds, use the houses during the winter. So, now we are wondering if we should clean them out now or wait until spring. Maybe they like the warm nest in the winter.

"Where have all the squirrels gone? They were here in abundance all summer. For at least the last three weeks, there has not been a red or gray squirrel at the feeders. I have a friend who lives near the golf course in Holderness who mentioned she had not seen any for quite some time either."

The behavior of bluebirds checking out birdhouses our reader spoke of usually occurs in late October into November. They flit about plaintively whispering their seasonal "good-byes." Almost every year before they leave for southern climes they visit birdhouses as if inspecting them for occupancy next season. (I always hope that is the case.) When bluebirds arrive during the winter they frequently find shelter in tree hollows, birdhouses or out-buildings.

In such locations they can and do huddle together for warmth on severely cold nights. When the winter weather becomes particularly heavy, some of our regular winter feeder birds such as titmice, white-breasted nuthatches and chickadees occasionally use birdhouses for shelter. Birdhouses that have been nested in, I prefer to clean and disinfect in the fall, so they can be fully air-dried by mid to late March when bluebirds frequently begin nesting. I don't believe that birds looking for winter shelter are greatly warmed by old nest material.

Our reader's query about the current shortage of squirrels is matched here at the farm. After having as many as six gray squirrels and two to three reds at the same time visit our feeders most all summer on a daily basis, we rarely count more than one or two currently. Acorns, butternuts and the like are natural squirrel foods and are dropping daily in the woods. I believe squirrels are finding food close to their homes, and are not traveling to feeders these days.

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.

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