Eine Kleine Nacht Musik

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1998

Last revision: Oct. 28, 2010

call will stand out. But sometimes it is to their advantage to cooperate, so two males will join in a rivals' duet, singing at the same intensity to attract as many females as possible.

I was impressed with the tenacity of these macho crickets and could picture them stalking their leaf corners, antennae waving, wings full of tunes. But Susanne wasn't finished impressing me.

"Among cricket populations there are 'satellite males' that don't call," she says. "They just hang out, hoping to mate the lovesick females attracted to the singers."

When I ask Susanne why the satellite males don't use the courting call, she cited some surprising reasons. It turns out that the cricket's moonlight serenade is risky business. Calling males use 35 times the energy of resting males. The more quiet types may get fewer females, but the extra energy boost may help them dodge a predator. It's also documented that a certain parasite that feeds on crickets finds its host by following the call it makes... another good reason not to get out your song book.

So far, Susanne and I had talked about wild Orthoptera (I thought that was the only kind), but when she began telling me about "Chinese cricket culture," I realized there was another side to the story.

People who have seen the movie The Last Emperor will remember the final scene in the film where the elderly emperor takes out a dust-covered cricket pot from under his chair and passes it to a little boy. The scene is meant to paint a picture of "Chinese cricket culture." China has a 2,000-year history of keeping singing insects as pets, an act of reverence toward the tiny singers who mark the changing seasons with their comings and goings.

Susanne visited the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City to view their collection of Chinese cricket cages, much like the one portrayed in The Last Emperor. These cricket pots are exquisite domiciles designed with jade and ivory lids and special sound chambers to amplify the singing of their insect residents.

Susanne told me that some Chinese crickets were used like watch dogs. "The cricket called all night unless someone entered the bed chamber. When the calling stopped, the sudden silence would wake the master of the house and alert him to the presence of an intruder."

Other households taught their crickets to fight. During a match which, according to Susanne, was watched with the

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