Tree crickets don’t necessarily live in trees, but they do live in plants and all of them except the Two-spotted Tree Cricket are green to some extent. They range in size from ½” to almost an inch. There are tree crickets that live in meadows, edge habitats, wetland edges, and woodlands. They can be found in plants close to the ground or high up in trees.
Some species are relatively easy to identify visually, but we can generally hear them more easily that see them. Therefore, song and habitat identification will often be the most useful information for sorting out the species. I'll start with visual characteristics and then I'll group species together that sound rather similar (or very similar).
All of our tree crickets are members of the genus Oecanthus with the exception of the Two-spotted Tree Cricket. This species is in the genus Neoxabea, and their color is primarily tan with red accents rather than green.
Broad-winged Tree Crickets have vibrant, rich red on the tops of their heads that extends part way town their antennae.
Black-horned Tree Crickets have black heads, antennae and legs. Their look-alike relative, the Forbes’s Tree Crickets, appear identical, though they may have a little more variation in the degree of black. Some can be rather pale, but please read the species description.
Pine Tree Crickets have subdued reddish-brown heads and legs and blend beautifully with the pines in which they live.
Other tree crickets have subtle difference but can be separated most reliably by the number, shape, and pattern of dark spots at the base of each antenna. Yes, these are very small and the crickets will not cheerfully volunteer to display this characteristic.
Antenna spots: clockwise: Four-spotted, Davis's, Snowy, and the bottom two are Narrow-winged. Davis's looks like an exclamation mark and Narrow-winged looks like a "J".
I wrote a Listening in Nature blog post about determining two similar tree crickets: the Narrow-winged and the Davis's by checking their antenna spots. This was more challenging than one might think, considering they were up in adjacent trees and could even be in the same tree!
You can find the specific pattern for a tree cricket on the individual species pages in the Singing Insects of North America (look under the individual Oecanthus species listings) and also at that same site here.
And if you want to know all about tree crickets, you most definitely will want to go to Nancy Collins’ tree cricket website.
Tree cricket songs and how to practice identifying them
It’s very important to remember that the cricket’s pitch (how high or low it sounds) will vary with temperature. The speed of the song will vary as well.
Warm temperature = faster song, higher pitch.
Cooler temperature = slower song, lower pitch.
Listen the rhythm and length of the songs rather than the exact pitches. Some tree crickets will always sing higher in relation to others. Some will have chirps, some will have long, continuous trills, and some will have songs that are not long trills but are still longer than a series of chirps.
This might be a good time to go back to my Listening in Nature blog post, "Cricket Songs: general characteristics of pitch and rhythm" and review what I rote and demonstrated about tree cricket songs. It will be helpful.
Song identification: remember, it's about rhythm more than pitch
Short, rhythmic songs: Snowy Tree Cricket and Narrow-winged Tree Cricket.
I'll start with the easiest pairing. The Snowy’s songs are about the same length as the pauses between them and are very rhythmic. The Narrow-winged’s songs and the pauses between them are longer, occurring with a steady, regular rhythm that’s slower than the Snowy Tree Cricket.
Irregular rhythm and length: Two-spotted Tree Cricket and Davis's Tree Cricket
The Two-spotted Tree Cricket’s song is longer than the short, rhythmic songs listed above, and they can also have some short phrases. The songs are higher in pitch than the Snowy, Narrowq-winged, and Davis's, and are very loud and strident. The Davis’s Tree Cricket’s songs are similar to the Narrow-winged but less consistent in length and lower in pitch. Davis's is less common than the Two-spotted or the Narrow-winged.
Let's also compare the Narrow-winged and the Davis's, as they can be close to each other and the Davis's can sometimes sing with almost as much rhythmic regularity as the Narrow-winged. These two individuals were on adjacent small trees. The Davis's pitch will be lower, as you can hear in this example, so that may help if you have both species together. You can also find my Listening in Nature blog post about identifying these two species here.
Continuous trills: this is where it really gets challenging.
I'll present the singers as a group and include some suggestions about telling them apart. I have to work at this, and so will you. They've gotten more obvious with time and practice, but I'd encourage you to do some visual checking as well. These crickets will generally be low enough that you can find them with patience and determination (and luck is helpful as well).
The tree crickets in this song category are: Four-spotted Tree Cricket, Black-horned Tree Cricket, Forbes’s Tree Cricket, Broad-winged Tree Cricket, and the Pine Tree Cricket. The Pine Tree Cricket, not surprisingly, will be in pines or possibly spruces. The other four occur in almost any NE Ohio meadow. The Broad-winged Tree Cricket’s song in lower in pitch than the songs of the other continuous trillers. Once again, however, temperature (including direct sunlight) will affect the pitch. Warmer = higher and cooler = slower. The pitches in my recordings are true for the particular temperature at which each individual was recorded.
Pine Tree Cricket: they're up in the pines. They will not be in the meadows and shrubby edges with the other continuous trillers.
Broad-winged Tree Cricket: they sing on a lower pitch than the other continuous trill singers. (Their songs are about a major 3rd lower.) The recording below demonstrates the difference; you'll hear the Broad-winged alone, then with a Forbes's singing at the same time. Broad-winged Tree Crickets sing in the early evening and at night. Their songs have fewer wing strokes per second than those of the Four-spotted, Black-horned and Forbes, and at cool temperatures you may detect the tiny spaces between wing strokes. See the Broad-winged species page for more illustrations.
Four-spotted Tree Cricket: meadows and grassy fields. They sing in the afternoon and at night. With practice, you may be able to tell that there are fewer wing strokes per second than the songs of the Black-horned or Forbes's.
Black-horned and Forbes's Tree Crickets: meadows and wetland edges. They sing in the afternoon and at night. The songs of these two species cannot be reliably distinguished by ear, nor can they be visually distinguished from each other. Both species are present in NE Ohio, and you'll find more information on them elsewhere in the tree cricket section. Here is a recording of one, then the other, at the same temperature.
Below is a recording of the Black-horned, then the Forbes's at the same temperature. You'll see how dense the Forbes's sonogram looks; there are more wing strokes per second than the Black-horned even though the pitch is the same. By the way, you may hear/see that a Striped Ground Cricket is also singing near the Forbes's. Look for the little dots about the Forbes's song in the sonogram, as the Striped Ground Cricket's pitch is much higher.
Habitats: who lives where?
Meadows and fields
Primarily Black-horned or Forbes’s Tree crickets (or possibly both), Four-spotted Tree Crickets, and Broad-winged Tree Crickets. Narrow-winged Tree Crickets show up on occasion and a Two-spotted (usually a female) may stop by at night.
Two-spotted, Narrow-winged, and Davis’s Tree Crickets. Snowy Tree Crickets, if present, will be in smaller trees, shrubs, and vines. Pine Tree Crickets, if present, will be in pines and may occasionally be heard in another evergreen such as a Norway Spruce.
Narrow-winged, Broad-winged, and Snowy Tree Crickets are the most likely, and Four-spotted and an occasional Black-horned or Forbes’s may be present as well.
Black-horned/Forbes’s are definitely the most likely tree crickets in these areas.
Combine the kind of song with the habitat in which you hear the cricket, and you’ll either have the identification or you'll narrow your choices to two or three options. The continuous trills in the meadow are the most challenging, but you have a better chance of actually seeing the singer if you’re patient.