Sounds of Summer

All of a sudden, on summer evenings in the southern hardwood forests, the refrain “Katy-did…Katy-didn’t” begins echoing back and forth. Katydids are prominent members of a nighttime orchestra comprised of insects, frogs, owls and birds singing to attract mates.

The nighttime orchestra of mating calls seems to grow louder and louder, and repeats over-and-over for hours. Distinguishing the individual participants in the cacophony of sounds can be confusing and leave a person wondering. “Did I or Didn’t I” identify them.

Curiosity can be satisfied by simply stopping, relaxing, and enjoying the chorus as beautiful music for a summer evening.


Katydids and crickets seem to be the loudest members. They both achieve sound by rubbing their forewings together rapidly. The upper wing has a series of serrated teeth called a file, and the lower wing is like a scraper.

Females want the healthiest males in order to produce the best offspring. Therefore, they judge the fitness of the male by the sound they create — the louder and more confident the trill, the greater the fitness of the male.

Katydids are well-camouflaged insects, usually green, and shaped like a simple leaf. During the day, they appear to be either dead or simply a leaf on a plant.

Crickets look more like grasshoppers and are smaller than katydids. Folklore holds many stories about them in various cultures. Sometimes they are seen as a sign of impending rain or a financial windfall. Crickets are known as symbols of happiness, longevity, and good health.

Cicadas are often confused with katydids and crickets. Although they are usually more active during the daylight hours, they can be heard at various times of day or night in some locations.

They make repeated courtship calls by rapidly vibrating thin membranes and ribs, which echo in a hollow belly, like a sound box. Most cicadas go through a two to five year cycle, spending most of their life as an underground nymph. The periodic cicadas emerge at intervals of 10 to 17 years. Cicadas have the reputation of being the loudest inset in the world; their buzzing can be insufferable.


Among the wide species of frogs, cricket frogs and spring peepers are tree frogs that are renowned members of an evening serenade. They are usually heard close to dusk and early morning when they are breeding.

Frogs create their sound by pushing air from the lungs into an expanding pouch in the throat. Then they force the air back down into their lungs over vocal cords.

The deep-throated croak of a bullfrog is occasionally interjected into the chorus, like a bass drum.


Owls often eject a hoot or two in the background of the orchestra. Literature reports many legends, superstitions and folk tales respecting their supposed wisdom and supernatural powers.

Often labeled magical, mysterious and omens of bad luck, they are the subject of numerous ‘boogeyman’ stories. Actually, they are no more bad luck than any other superstition.

Owls’ unique features include stationary eyes with binocular vision; binaural hearing recording sounds on both sides, like headphones using two separate channels from two separate microphones; sharp talons; and feathers adapted for silent flight.

All owls are predators. They depend on other animals for food. Very few predators feed on them; they hold a position at the top of the food chain.

The barred owl has a distinctive call, “Who cooks for you- Who cooks for you-all” or Yawl. During courtship, mated pairs perform a riotous duet of cackles, hoots, caws, and gurgles.

Talk about fun! On a nighttime “Owl Prowl” in the woods, they can be lured closer by mimicking their calls. They are common above 3,500 feet in elevation and can sometimes be heard during the day.

The small eastern screech owl is frequently found below 4,000 feet from July to October. Its quavering, descending call sounds similar to the neighing of a horse. It has two distinctly different color phases. In the south, it is usually a reddish brown color. It can be gray in the north. It has short ear-looking tufts and yellow eyes.

The smallest owl in eastern North America is the northern saw-whet, commonly seen in the spruce-fir forests above 5,000 feet. The monotonous, constant song of “whot-whot-whot…” can be heard on clear, windless nights.

The great horned owl is an uncommon resident living all year in the lower elevations. The large tufted head makes it appear to have big ears and no neck.


At dusk, whippoorwills begin pronouncing their name for several hours into the night then sing again at dawn. They can be heard below 3,000 feet near the edges of open fields where they enjoy their favorite insects.

Chuck-will’s-widow is often confused with Whippoorwills. They are uncommon here but can be heard at night in coves and valleys in late spring and summer. They frequent open fields near woodland edges especially on calm, moonlit nights.

Mockingbirds can interrupt the night with their annoying, constant, mimicking tweets all night… every night. Sometimes they are joined by Field sparrows and Yellow- breasted chats.

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