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THE FIELD - CRICKET




The breeding of Crickets demands no particular preparations. A little
patience is enough--patience, which according to Buffon is genius; but
which I, more modestly, will call the superlative virtue of the
observer. In April, May, or later we may establish isolated couples in
ordinary flower-pots containing a layer of beaten earth. Their diet will
consist of a leaf of lettuce renewed from time to time. The pot must be
covered with a square of glass to prevent the escape of the inmates.

I have gathered some very curious data from these makeshift appliances,
which may be used with and as a substitute for the cages of wire gauze,
although the latter are preferable. We shall return to the point
presently. For the moment let us watch the process of breeding, taking
care that the critical hour does not escape us.

It was during the first week of June that my assiduous visits were at
last repaid. I surprised the female motionless, with the oviduct planted
vertically in the soil. Heedless of the indiscreet visitor, she remained
for a long time stationed at the same point. Finally she withdrew her
oviduct, and effaced, though without particular care, the traces of the
hole in which her eggs were deposited, rested for a moment, walked
away, and repeated the operation; not once, but many times, first here,
then there, all over the area at her disposal. Her behaviour was
precisely the same as that of the Decticus, except that her movements
were more deliberate. At the end of twenty-four hours her eggs were
apparently all laid. For greater certainty I waited a couple of days
longer.

I then examined the earth in the pot. The eggs, of a straw-yellow, are
cylindrical in form, with rounded ends, and measure about one-tenth of
an inch in length. They are placed singly in the soil, in a
perpendicular position.

I have found them over the whole area of the pot, at a depth of a
twelfth of an inch. As closely as the difficulties of the operation will
allow, I have estimated the eggs of a single female, upon passing the
earth through a sieve, at five or six hundred. Such a family will
certainly undergo an energetic pruning before very long.

The egg of the Cricket is a curiosity, a tiny mechanical marvel. After
hatching it appears as a sheath of opaque white, open at the summit,
where there is a round and very regular aperture, to the edge of which
adheres a little valve like a skull-cap which forms the lid. Instead of
breaking at random under the thrusts or the cuts of the new-formed
larva, it opens of itself along a line of least resistance which occurs
expressly for the purpose. The curious process of the actual hatching
should be observed.

A fortnight after the egg is laid two large eye-marks, round and of a
reddish black, are seen to darken the forward extremity of the egg.
Next, a little above these two points, and right at the end of the
cylinder, a tiny circular capsule or swelling is seen. This marks the
line of rupture, which is now preparing. Presently the translucency of
the egg allows us to observe the fine segmentation of the tiny inmate.
Now is the moment to redouble our vigilance and to multiply our visits,
especially during the earlier part of the day.

Fortune favours the patient, and rewards my assiduity Round the little
capsule changes of infinite delicacy have prepared the line of least
resistance. The end of the egg, pushed by the head of the inmate,
becomes detached, rises, and falls aside like the top of a tiny phial.
The Cricket issues like a Jack-in-the-box.

When the Cricket has departed the shell remains distended, smooth,
intact, of the purest white, with the circular lid hanging to the mouth
of the door of exit. The egg of the bird breaks clumsily under the blows
of a wart-like excrescence which is formed expressly upon the beak of
the unborn bird; the egg of the Cricket, of a far superior structure,
opens like an ivory casket. The pressure of the inmate's head is
sufficient to work the hinge.

The moment he is deprived of his white tunic, the young Cricket, pale
all over, almost white, begins to struggle against the overlying soil.
He strikes it with his mandibles; he sweeps it aside, kicking it
backwards and downwards; and being of a powdery quality, which offers no
particular resistance, he soon arrives at the surface, and henceforth
knows the joys of the sun, and the perils of intercourse with the
living; a tiny, feeble creature, little larger than a flea. His colour
deepens. In twenty-four hours he assumes a splendid ebony black which
rivals that of the adult insect. Of his original pallor he retains only
a white girdle which encircles the thorax and reminds one of the
leading-string of an infant.

Very much on the alert, he sounds his surroundings with his long
vibrating antennae; he toddles and leaps along with a vigour which his
future obesity will no longer permit.

This is the age of stomach troubles. What are we to give him to eat? I
do not know. I offer him adult diet--the tender leaves of a lettuce. He
disdains to bite it; or perhaps his bites escape me, so tiny would they
be.

In a few days, what with my ten households, I see myself loaded with
family cares. What shall I do with my five or six thousand Crickets, an
attractive flock, to be sure, but one I cannot bring up in my ignorance
of the treatment required? I will give you liberty, gentle creatures! I
will confide you to the sovereign nurse and schoolmistress, Nature!

It is done. Here and there about my orchard, in the most favourable
localities, I loose my legions. What a concert I shall have before my
door next year if all goes well! But no! There will probably be silence,
for the terrible extermination will follow which corresponds with the
fertility of the mother. A few couples only may survive: that is the
most we can hope.

The first to come to the living feast and the most eager at the
slaughter are the little grey lizard and the ant. I am afraid this
latter, hateful filibuster that it is, will not leave me a single
Cricket in my garden. It falls upon the tiny Crickets, eviscerates them,
and devours them with frantic greed.

Satanic creature! And to think that we place it in the front rank of
the insect world! The books celebrate its virtues and never tire of its
praises; the naturalists hold it in high esteem and add to its
reputation daily; so true is it of animals, as of man, that of the
various means of living in history the most certain is to do harm to
others.

Every one knows the _Bousier_ (dung-beetle) and the Necrophorus, those
lively murderers; the gnat, the drinker of blood; the wasp, the
irascible bully with the poisoned dagger; and the ant, the maleficent
creature which in the villages of the South of France saps and imperils
the rafters and ceilings of a dwelling with the same energy it brings to
the eating of a fig. I need say no more; human history is full of
similar examples of the useful misunderstood and undervalued and the
calamitous glorified.

What with the ants and other exterminating forces, the massacre was so
great that the colonies of Crickets in my orchard, so numerous at the
outset, were so far decimated that I could not continue my observations,
but had to resort to the outside world for further information.

In August, among the detritus of decaying leaves, in little oases whose
turf is not burned by the sun, I find the young Cricket has already
grown to a considerable size; he is all black, like the adult, without a
vestige of the white cincture of the early days. He has no domicile. The
shelter of a dead leaf, the cover afforded by a flat stone is
sufficient; he is a nomad, and careless where he takes his repose.

Not until the end of October, when the first frosts are at hand, does
the work of burrowing commence. The operation is very simple, as far as
I can tell from what I have learned from the insect in captivity. The
burrow is never made at a bare or conspicuous point; it is always
commenced under the shelter of a faded leaf of lettuce, the remains of
the food provided. This takes the place of the curtain of grass so
necessary to preserve the mysterious privacy of the establishment.

The little miner scratches with his fore-claws, but also makes use of
the pincers of his mandibles in order to remove pieces of grit or gravel
of any size. I see him stamping with his powerful hinder limbs, which
are provided with a double row of spines; I see him raking and sweeping
backwards the excavated material, and spreading it out in an inclined
plane. This is his whole method.

At first the work goes forward merrily. The excavator disappears under
the easily excavated soil of his prison after two hours' labour. At
intervals he returns to the orifice, always tail first, and always
raking and sweeping. If fatigue overcomes him he rests on the threshold
of his burrow, his head projecting outwards, his antennae gently
vibrating. Presently he re-enters his tunnel and sets to work again with
his pincers and rakes. Presently his periods of repose grow longer and
tire my patience.

The most important part of the work is now completed. Once the burrow
has attained a depth of a couple of inches, it forms a sufficient
shelter for the needs of the moment. The rest will be the work of time;
a labour resumed at will, for a short time daily. The burrow will be
made deeper and wider as the growth of the inmate and the inclemency of
the season demand. Even in winter, if the weather is mild, and the sun
smiles upon the threshold of his dwelling, one may sometimes surprise
the Cricket thrusting out small quantities of loosened earth, a sign of
enlargement and of further burrowing. In the midst of the joys of spring
the cares of the house still continue; it is constantly restored and
perfected until the death of the occupant.

April comes to an end, and the song of the Cricket commences. At first
we hear only timid and occasional solos; but very soon there is a
general symphony, when every scrap of turf has its performer. I am
inclined to place the Cricket at the head of the choristers of spring.
In the waste lands of Provence, when the thyme and the lavender are in
flower, the Cricket mingles his note with that of the crested lark,
which ascends like a lyrical firework, its throat swelling with music,
to its invisible station in the clouds, whence it pours its liquid arias
upon the plain below. From the ground the chorus of the Crickets
replies. It is monotonous and artless, yet how well it harmonises, in
its very simplicity, with the rustic gaiety of a world renewed! It is
the hosanna of the awakening, the alleluia of the germinating seed and
the sprouting blade. To which of the two performers should the palm be
given? I should award it to the Cricket; he triumphs by force of numbers
and his never-ceasing note. The lark hushes her song, that the blue-grey
fields of lavender, swinging their aromatic censers before the sun, may
hear the Cricket alone at his humble, solemn celebration.

But here the anatomist intervenes, roughly demanding of the Cricket:
"Show me your instrument, the source of your music!" Like all things of
real value, it is very simple; it is based on the same principle as that
of the locusts; there is the toothed fiddlestick and the vibrating
tympanum.

The right wing-cover overlaps the left and almost completely covers it,
except for the sudden fold which encases the insect's flank. This
arrangement is the reverse of that exhibited by the green grasshopper,
the Decticus, the Ephippigera, and their relations. The Cricket is
right-handed, the others left-handed. The two wing-covers have the same
structure. To know one is to know the other. Let us examine that on the
right hand.

It is almost flat on the back, but suddenly folds over at the side, the
turn being almost at right angles. This lateral fold encloses the flank
of the abdomen and is covered with fine oblique and parallel nervures.
The powerful nervures of the dorsal portion of the wing-cover are of the
deepest black, and their general effect is that of a complicated design,
not unlike a tangle of Arabic caligraphy.

Seen by transmitted light the wing-cover is of a very pale reddish
colour, excepting two large adjacent spaces, one of which, the larger
and anterior, is triangular in shape, while the other, the smaller and
posterior, is oval. Each space is surrounded by a strong nervure and
goffered by slight wrinkles or depressions. These two spaces represent
the mirror of the locust tribe; they constitute the sonorous area. The
substance of the wing-cover is finer here than elsewhere, and shows
traces of iridescent though somewhat smoky colour.

These are parts of an admirable instrument, greatly superior to that of
the Decticus. The five hundred prisms of the bow biting upon the ridges
of the wing-cover opposed to it set all four tympanums vibrating at
once; the lower pair by direct friction, the upper pair by the vibration
of the wing-cover itself. What a powerful sound results! The Decticus,
endowed with only one indifferent "mirror," can be heard only at a few
paces; the Cricket, the possessor of four vibratory areas, can be heard
at a hundred yards.

The Cricket rivals the Cigale in loudness, but his note has not the
displeasing, raucous quality of the latter. Better still: he has the
gift of expression, for he can sing loud or soft. The wing-covers, as we
have seen, are prolonged in a deep fold over each flank. These folds are
the dampers, which, as they are pressed downwards or slightly raised,
modify the intensity of the sound, and according to the extent of their
contact with the soft abdomen now muffle the song to a _mezza voce_ and
now let it sound _fortissimo_.

Peace reigns in the cage until the warlike instinct of the mating period
breaks out. These duels between rivals are frequent and lively, but not
very serious. The two rivals rise up against one another, biting at one
another's heads--these solid, fang-proof helmets--roll each other over,
pick themselves up, and separate. The vanquished Cricket scuttles off as
fast as he can; the victor insults him by a couple of triumphant and
boastful chirps; then, moderating his tone, he tacks and veers about the
desired one.

The lover proceeds to make himself smart. Hooking one of his antennae
towards him with one of his free claws, he takes it between his
mandibles in order to curl it and moisten it with saliva. With his long
hind legs, spurred and laced with red, he stamps with impatience and
kicks out at nothing. Emotion renders him silent. His wing-covers are
nevertheless in rapid motion, but are no longer sounding, or at most
emit but an unrhythmical rubbing sound.

Presumptuous declaration! The female Cricket does not run to hide
herself in the folds of her lettuce leaves; but she lifts the curtain a
little, and looks out, and wishes to be seen:--

_Et fugit ad salices, et se cupit ante videri._

She flies towards the brake, but hopes first to be perceived, said the
poet of the delightful eclogue, two thousand years ago. Sacred
provocations of lovers, are they not in all ages the same?





Next: THE ITALIAN CRICKET

Previous: THE GOLDEN GARDENER - COURTSHIP



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