Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Periodical Cicadas: Big Nature

It’s a matter of scale, I think, that marks the difference between natural phenomena that are overlooked, and those that demand the attention of us all. At least, this is the case with the periodical cicadas, in the genus Magicicada. The whole region’s “abuzz” with them.

“Buzzing,” by the way, does not come close to describing the sound, for the sounds they make vary—an individual cicada, for instance (depending on the species) might make a quick series of “tics” before producing a single swooping, widening rasp. The quality is similar to the raspy “peent” of a nighthawk. (Click here for the call of Magicicada tredecassini.)

When the cicadas first started to emerge this year, these individual sounds reminded me of a neighbor starting up his weed-whacker, which often makes a repeated choking sound before it “catches” into a full, expansive, whining whirr.

But as I write this, the cicadas are at high tide, swarming in the trees everywhere, and the males are literally chorusing. They synchronize, like thousands of humans in a sports stadium doing “the wave”—and waves are what it sounds like. Crescendo, decrescendo, crescendo, decrescendo—over, and over, and over, incessantly. All day long.

When they’re en masse like this, the sound is completely different, and the quality also varies depending on where you are. Hearing them from inside the house, it’s like the hiss of a running faucet (minus any sound of splashing water). Or it sounds like thousands of small rainsticks, upended dramatically, over and over again, never allowed to go silent.

But if you’re outside, surrounded by them, it can give you a headache. Kind of like a chorus of circular saws, or vacuum cleaners, or leaf-blowers. They’re loud!

And consider this: It’s only the males making this sound; the females, except for the clicking of their wings, are silent. Thus, you should multiply your perception by two to have an idea of the actual density of these little critters!

It’s like having an ocean in your backyard, a constantly pounding surf. This is “big nature”; you can’t ignore it. Now, you can go about your daily life scarcely aware of the colony of paper wasps building a nest high up on your gable, or Madame Woodchuck chewing grasses along a drainage ditch as you drive home, or even that chipper cardinal whistling outside your window each morning.

But you cannot ignore the periodical cicadas when they’re enjoying their few precious, necessary weeks aboveground.

Their swarms are on the order of supercell thunderstorms, floods, red tides, and avalanches. It’s a phenomenon you’re forced to notice.

However, unlike a lot of those major natural events, the mass emergence of cicadas doesn’t require you to get very concerned (unless you own a tree farm and failed to plan for the predictable emergence of cicadas). Why? Because the only damage cicadas do is to branch tips. In fact, you could think of them as a natural pruning mechanism for trees.

They cannot sting you, for they have no stingers. They are not poisonous (in fact, you can eat them; many people in this world do). They don’t have the ability to bite you, either (although it’s possible that they might accidentally poke you with their strawlike mouthparts—a simple mistake on their part—hold still long enough, and a cicada perched on you might suspect you’re a tree). Overall, cicadas are about as harmless and inoffensive as an insect can be. Please let your children play (gently) with them!

I have to admit, it saddens me to think that many people—even educated people, even some of my friends!—say they hate cicadas. I guess this dislike arises from their numbers, their noise, their assertive presence. Or maybe because they pee tiny clear raindrops on our cars for a month.

And they do remind us that we mammals are vastly outnumbered by the insects. If you’re insecure about that fact, the cicadas could indeed bother you.

But I think the miracle of periodical cicadas vastly outweighs any temporary inconvenience. They really are thirteen years old! As with other cicadas, a great majority of their lives is spent underground, where they use their strawlike mouths to tap juices from plant roots. They’re not “incubating” down there; they are simply young—it takes them thirteen years to grow from the size of a tiny ant to the “cicada shells” you see attached to trees.

In other words, during their subterranean years, they are moving, eating, breathing, living creatures; they’re simply not yet winged, sexually mature adults. (Ahem: There are other animals on this planet that don’t become sexually mature until their teenage years, too. And drinking sweet fluids is a favorite activity of theirs, as well!)

I contend it’s a virtue to conquer one’s groundless, prejudicial phobias against God’s beloved creatures, great and small.

(And if that’s not enough reason to think they’re cool, think about all the silly, prissy people you don’t like whose lives are being “all ruined” by cicadas! Hah! Chalk one up for the little guys!)


Julianna Schroeder said...

Notice: I accidentally deleted a bunch of comments from my posts. Here, I try to reconstruct what I can of the ones I stupidly deleted.
--Julie (6-27-11)


On 6-8-11, Osage Bluff Quilter commented:

I had a post ready to go with a video of them singing in my backyard as I am enjoying a glass of wine. Stupid blogger won't upload.
Lucky you, yours posted.
I will try again tomorrow.


On 6-10-11, Dj left this comment:

I mentioned this entry on Clear 99 this morning as they were looking for ANYONE that had something good to say about cicadas. I hope you get many more people regaling their gloriousness!


Later that day, I replied:

Wow, DJ, thanks for the shout-out! I really appreciate it. I keep thinking I should do more to promote my blog, but I've never gone beyond word of mouth and whatever Google deigns to send my way.

I do have another few posts on cicadas that are written and almost ready to go (I need to gather up a few pictures first)--so stay tuned!



And then Dj responded:

Here ya go!


Later that day, I posted:

Patti, I love your video of the cicada chorus! Lookee, y'all:

John Lucas said...

Great info! We have them here in NW Ohio but not as thick and you never really see them - just hear them and see a few shells. Everyone I know calls them locusts and you know Fall is on the way when you hear them start to holler... 6 weeks to first frost.