Saturday, June 30, 2007

Review: Lang Elliott on the Songs of Insects and Birds

One evening early last week I heard a cicada sing for the first time this summer. For several weeks already, the sounds of insects have been emanating - quietly - from the fields where I usually walk for my birding. These songs will intensify as the weeks roll on.

Like birds, insects produce distinctive sounds. I am not sure that the many insect species are as easily identifiable by song as birds. Insects do not have as great a range in quality; most songs are buzzy trills or chirps since insects detect intensity and rhythm better than pitch. Many insect songs are at a much higher pitch than bird songs; most range from 4 kHz to 20 kHz and are harder for humans to hear. One aid towards learning to identify different insects is The Songs of Insects, a new book by Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger.

The Songs of Insects introduces the songs of seventy-seven species, from four insect families. It includes many examples of crickets (Gryllidae and Gryllotalpidae) and katydids (Tettigoniidae). Two grasshoppers (Acrididae) are represented. Several cicadas (Cicadidae) round out the book. While some species may be found across the continent, most insects described in the book are from the eastern and central United States. A compact disk with multiple examples of each song accompanies the text.

Each species on the compact disk is given an entry in the book. The text describes identification points for each insect, including a description of the song. Most entries include notes on the species's preferred habitat and how to find them. I wish the text gave more detail about what time of year each species emerges and sings (e.g., late summer vs. early summer). Each entry includes a range map, a sonagram, and high-quality photographs of the species.

The species accounts comprise the bulk of the book. In addition, The Songs of Insects includes introductory material on the production and structure of insect songs. The authors also give advice for appreciating insect songs and collecting insects. Additional supporting materials are provided at the website

The Songs of Insects is a companion to The Songs of Wild Birds, also by Lang Elliott. Like The Songs of Insects, The Songs of Wild Birds combines a lively text with high-quality color photographs and a compact disk. In the course of fifty short essays, Elliott introduces the vocalizations of fifty-nine bird species. As with The Songs of Insects, bird species are selected from the eastern and central United States.

The compact disk for The Songs of Wild Birds has a more didactic tone than that of The Songs of Insects. While the latter's compact disk simply introduces each species by name, the narration for The Songs of Wild Birds introduces each species and describes the songs and their functions. I was gratified to hear Elliott clarify the difference between the calls of red-tailed hawks and bald eagles - a common mistake. The disk includes some unusual sounds, such as the nocturnal flight calls of a flock of migrating hermit and Swainson's thrushes.

While I enjoyed reading The Songs of Wild Birds and listening to the compact disk, I am not sure that it fills a unique niche among books about bird songs. (I prefer the Birding by Ear series for learning to identify songs and The Singing Life of Birds for how bird songs function.) The Songs of Insects does fill a real need, since the resources for identifying insect songs are few. It is especially unusual to find insect song resources that are aimed at the general public. The Songs of Insects might not be appealing to someone who is squeamish about the sight of larger-than-life photographs of insects. Anyone else, though, should enjoy this book and learn from it.

Full citations:

Lang Elliott and Wil Hershberger, The Songs of Insects. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Pp. 228; sonagrams, color photographs, index, and compact disk. $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0618663975 (


Lang Elliott, The Songs of Wild Birds. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Pp. 128; sonagrams, color photographs, index, and compact disk. $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0618663983


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