'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

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Saturday, 27 August 2011

Gilbert White on the Field Cricket

The post today is a delightful piece of writing that I have just read and which I'd like to share with you. It ties in nicely with a particular consistency I've observed in the survey results - the pleasant association of the sound of crickets and cicadas with the joys of summer. Gilbert White was the first great English field naturalist. A country parson, he spent virtually all his life in the Hampshire village of Selbourne. He is still quoted as an authority on the field cricket in some works on entomology.

(The original had those long 'f' shapes for every 's', but I've made it easier to read and changed them all to 's'.)

Selbourne, September 2 1774.

There is a steep abrupt pasture field interspersed with furze close to the back of this village, well known by the name of the Short Lithe, consisting of a rocky dry soil, and inclining to the afternoon sun. This spot abounds with the gryllus campestris, or field-cricket; which, though frequent in these parts, is by no means a common insect in many other countries. As their cheerful summer cry cannot but draw the attention of a naturalist, I have often gone down to examine the economy of these grylli, and study their mode of life: but they are so shy and cautious that it is no easy matter to get a sight of them; for, feeling a person's footsteps as he advances, they stop short in the midst of their song, and retire backward nimbly into their burrows, where they lurk till all suspicion of danger is over.

At first we attempted to dig them out with a spade, but without any great success; for either we could not get to the bottom of the hole, which often terminated under a great stone; or else, in breaking up the ground, we inadvertently squeezed the poor insect to death. Out of one so bruised we took a multitude of eggs, which were long and narrow, of a yellow colour, and covered with a very tough skin. By this accident we learned to distinguish the male from the female; the former of which is shining black, with a golden stripe across his shoulders; the latter is more dusky, more capacious about the abdomen, and carries a long sword-shaped weapon at her tail, which probably is the instrument with which she deposits her eggs in crannies and safe receptacles.

Where violent methods will not avail, more gentle means will often succeed; and so it proved in the present case; for, though a spade be too boisterous and rough an implement, a pliant stalk of glass, gently insinuated not the caverns, will probe their windings to the bottom, and quickly bring out the inhabitant; and thus the humane inquirer may gratify his curiosity without injuring the object of it. It is remarkable that, though these insects are furnished with long legs behind, and brawny thighs for leaping, like grasshoppers; yet when driven from their holes they show no activity, but crawl along in a shiftless manner, so as easily to be taken: and again, though provided with a curious apparatus of wings, yet they never exert them when there seems to be the greatest occasion. The males only make that shrilling noise perhaps out of rivalry and emulation, as is the case with many animals which exert some sprightly note during their breeding time: it is raised by a brisk friction of one wing against the other. They are solitary beings, living singly male or female, each as it may happen: but there must be a time when the sexes have some intercourse, and then the wings may be useful perhaps during the hours of night. When the males meet they will fight fiercely, as I found by some which I put into the crevices of a dry stone wall, where I should have been glad to have made them settle. For though they seemed distressed by being taken out of their knowledge, yet the first that got possession of the chinks would seize upon any that were obtruded upon them with a vast row of serrated fangs. With their strong jaws, toothed like the shears of a lobster's claws, they perforate and round their curious regular cells, having no fore-claws to dig, like the mole-cricket. When taken in hand I could not but wonder that they never offered to defend themselves, though armed with such formidable weapons. Of such herbs as grow before the mouths of their burrows they eat indiscriminately; and on a little platform, which they make just by, they drop their dung; and never, in the day-time, seem to stir more than two or three inches from home. Sitting in the entrance of their caverns they chirp all night as well as day from the middle of the month of May to the middle of July; and in hot weather, when they are most vigorous, they make the hills echo; and in the stiller hours of the season, their notes are more faint and inward; but becoming louder as the summer advances, and so die away by degrees.

Sounds do not always give us pleasure according to their sweetness and melody; nor do harsh sounds always displease. We are more apt to be captivated or disgusted with the associations which they promote, than with the notes themselves. Thus the shrilling of the field-cricket, though sharp and stridulous, yet marvelously delights some hearers, filling their minds with a train of summer ideas of everything that is rural, verdurous, and joyous.

About the tenth of March the crickets appear at the mouths of their cells, which they then open and bore, and shape very elegantly. All that ever I have seen at that season were in their pupa state, and had only the rudiments of wings, lying under a skin or coat, which must be cast before the insect can arrive at its perfect state (We have observed that they cast these skins in April, which are then seen lying at the mouths of their holes.) From whence I should suppose that the old ones of last year do not always survive the winter. In August their holes begin to be obliterated, and the insects are seen no more till spring.

Not many summers ago I endeavored to transplant a colony to the terrace in my garden, by boring deep holes in the sloping turf. The new inhabitants stayed some time, and fed and sung; but wandered away by degrees, and were heard at a further distance every morning; so that it appears that on this emergency they made use of their wings in attempting to return to the spot from which they were taken.

One of these crickets, when confined in a paper cage and set in the sun, and supplied with plants moistened with water, will feed and thrive, and become so merry and loud as to be irksome in the same room where a person is sitting: if the plants are not wetted it will die.

Source: Gilbert White. The Natural History of Selbourne, 1788.

Post script: The Natural History Museum says that this is now one of the rarest insects in the British Isles and it was restricted to only one site (Near Coates Castle) by 1988. However a captive breeding programme at the London Zoo had been successful in establishing two more separate populations by 1990, and I think I read somewhere that there are now a total of five populations.


  1. Gilbert White's writing is admirable - revealing both a love of nature and an all-consuming scientific curiosity. We bewail the passing of the dodo, the tiger, the blue whale, the elephant bird but the loss of the field cricket is just as tragic.

  2. An entomologist I am not, but I appreciate the diligence of Parson White in his observations and the dexterity with which he transferred his findings to paper. Fascinating!

  3. The 1987 Penguin Classics edition has done away with the f esses and it is a wonderful tribute to the man that his work is still readily available.

    One of the good things about the Church of England was the lack of things it required of its parsons thus enabling many to perform valuable service to humanity by undertaking vocations - such as entomology - which might have given little financial reward for a person requiring to make an income from it in order to live.

    GS's prose and observations are delightful.