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The 17 Year Periodical Cicada (Magicicada septendecim)

Mud Chimney and Burrows

In Maryland, 2004 was the year of the 17 year Periodical Cicada, Brood X (10).  Brood X is the largest and most important brood in Maryland. After 17 years of feeding on small roots under the soil, the nymphs have started to emerge and have begun to shed their skin and transform into adults. The type of Magicicada I found on my property is the Magicicada septendecim, which I assume translates to 17 year cicada :-) There are two other major types of 17 year cicada: Magicicada cassini and Magicicada septendecula.

Cicadas are often mistakenly called locusts. Locusts are actually a type of grasshopper or a type of tree, depending on the context.

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We first started to realize just how many cicadas we were going to have when we started noticing the holes (figure 1) and mud-tunnels or chimneys (figure 2) in our yard in late April. The mud chimneys are created when the cicada pushes mud up out of its hole after a rain. In our yard, most of the chimneys all broke off and were lying flat on the ground. However, it was possible to see them still attached to the hole in many places.

Once the cicadas started to emerge, the number of holes in the yard became astronomical. It's amazing just how many little nymphs there were under the ground around our property. They came up in the dirt, in between paving stones, around foundations, everywhere.

Nymph Shells

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We saw our first solitary cicada shell on the side of our chimney around May 11, but it wasn't until the day of May 14 that the cicadas started to really come out on our property. Hundreds of cicadas literally came out overnight. They seemed to prefer the areas that were lit up (around our driveway dusk to dawn lights) as well as the areas that received sun first thing this morning (end of our driveway).

The cicadas didn't emerge just on trees, they seemed to prefer any sort of short vertical climb, especially the tall grass-like leaves of the irises (figures 3 and 4) and short trees such as the arrowood (Viburnum dentatum) (figure 5)

Inflating their Wings

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Once the cicadas emerge from their shell, they need to hang around for a bit and let their wings dry and inflate (figure 6). This is similar or identical to the process that butterflies go through to inflate their wings. Previously I thought that the cicadas would have had their wings completely set by the time they changed color. However, unless this cicada is simply crippled, it shows that I was incorrect. This cicada is on the underside of a arrowood near one of our driveway lights.

The more I see the above photo, the more I think that this little cicada was just a bit crippled. All the other cicadas I've seen, that seemed healthy, had already inflated their wings before they changed color.

You can really see the red eyes and the leg and wing coloration in figure 6. Note that normal dog-day cicadas are mostly green while these periodic cicadas are mostly orange/yellow. There is also a variety with white eyes, and rare ones with brown eyes.

There are additional photos of this process in the cicada log down towards the bottom of this page.


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After they dry off, the cicadas just seem to hang around everywhere. It seems that every bush has a live cicada or its shell, or some combination of multiples of the two. As of May 14, very few of these fat little bugs have been seen flying around. However, I'm sure we'll be picking them out of our hair soon enough. heh. If only they ate mosquitoes and gnats :-)

The cicada on the azalea (figure 7) really shows the "W" near the wing tip which is one of the identifying marks of the periodical cicada. It is still open to question as to whether or not adult cicadas eat - I've seen texts on both sides of the issue - so I can't say if he's enjoying some azalea nectar/sap or just hanging around hoping not to be eaten by one of the numerous birds in the area.


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The local birds and spiders have really been having a feast. Not only do I find wings littered around all the driveway lamps (figure 9) but also half-eaten nymphs as well. When I cleaned out my Carolina Wren nest box, I found half a snacked-on nymph in with the nesting material. Obviously junior was having a decent meal ;-)

I've also seen some really strong spiders dragging paralyzed cicadas across my driveway (figures 10, 11) and up lamp posts. I didn't realize that the spiders were strong enough to carry such huge pray around just by their front legs and jaws. Warning, the spider photos might be a bit gross for folks with sensitive stomachs.

My Cicada Watching Log - Updates

Friday May 14, 2004

As of May 14 the invasion has only just started. Given that we live in a very heavily wooded area with very large old-growth oak and poplar trees, I fully expect that we will be on the high end of the estimated 1 million per acre. If it rains the weekend of the 15th as is forecast, I expect we'll have quite an emergence.


Saturday May 15, 2004


On May 15 we woke to easily ten times as many cicadas as we had the day before. I know it hasn't really gotten into fully swing, but I can see the yard is full of holes, and I can hear the cicada calls from the sunnier parts of the neighborhood. I've heard the sound describes as someone trying to start a motor or a blender, but to me it just sounds like a cheesy 1950's "giant bug" movie sound effect. heh

We saw more half-munched cicadas today, some still alive and crawling (yuck!). One I saw had only his head and the part of his body the wings and legs attach to. All the rest of his body had been taken off, but he was still climbing up the light post! The birds have hardly been at the feeders with all these easy meals flying around slowly, or just lying out in plain site.

I already have so many photos of cicadas that it has become a boring subject. I need to still try and get some of the nymphs transforming to adults, but I'll need to be out in the night with all the blood-sucking flies to do that.


Saturday May 15, 2004 - Night

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I noticed the day before that all the transformations seem to take place in the evening or early morning, so around 9:30/10:00 PM I went outside in the rain to try and take some photos of the cicadas emerging from their shells. These night shots aren't all that crisp, but they give you an idea of what is happening.

There were lots of other interesting insects out that night as well. Not only were there tons of little snow-white moths, but also a giant millipede that was hauling across my driveway. I had expected to see the usual half-dozen toads, but there weren't any in sight. I guess maybe they were all in the mulch eating cicadas.


Sunday May 16, 2004

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It rained fairly steadily last night through the morning. It was also pretty hot and humid. Most everything is covered by some number of cicadas now. Melissa went out in the early morning and took a bunch of photos, but they don't really do justice to just how many are already out there hanging on every little branch and leaf. The noise is much louder today, but still nothing like what it supposedly gets to.

The Pileated Woodpecker was outside for a bit picking the cicadas off of the trees. Obviously he's pretty happy about this easy meal :-)


Monday May 17, 2004 - Popcorn

I actually stayed out into the wee hours of the morning (Tuesday morning) and watched some cicadas go through the whole process from crawling up the back wall of my house through emerging fully from the shell. It really is am amazing process and takes a couple hours. From memory, this is how it goes (please forgive my lack of insect body-part terminology):

First the cicada will emerge from the ground and follow an instinct to crawl up. It doesn't care too much what it crawls up on, as long as it isn't too sappy. I am not sure what makes some cicadas crawl up less than a foot and others crawl up 30' or more to the tree canopy. They aren't the most nimble climbers, and I saw many fall down several feet onto the ground just to crawl back up again. The particular cicadas I watched this evening were crawling up the back of my foundation wall.

Once the cicada has reached what it determines to be the place where it is going to stop, it stays very still for a while. Once in a while, it will take a hind leg and massage the back of its hind end. The one I saw did this a couple times over the course of a half hour to thirty-five minutes.

At some point, you start noticing the cicada straining. It can't be mistaken for anything else, really. It would extend its hind end so that it would curve and touch the wall, and then it would seem to push. This must take a good amount of energy as it waited several minutes in between bouts of this.

At some point during the straining, a hairline crack will appear near the body right behind the head. Once this happens, it moves pretty quickly from this point on. I originally thought it would be more of a pop, but it is just a split that happens over time.

The cicada continues to push, widening the crack so that it looks like popcorn with the white stuff pushing through the crack. During the pushing, it also uses its hind end to push itself out of the end of the shell.

Eventually the cicada emerges enough to flop over backwards with only its hind end still inside the shell. It hangs like this for a bit, presumably while it re-learns to use its legs.

Once it has control over its legs, it climbs out, hangs onto the shell from using legs, and begins inflating its wings. The wings unfurl much like one of those inflatable pools with the membrane in the middle stretching taught once the frame around the edges (and throughout, in the case of the cicada) inflates.


Saturday May 22, 2004 - Noisy!

I take back everything I said about it not being very loud. Today was a very hot and humid day, and the cicada noise was loud enough that I could hear it over my circular saw. It's amazing how loud this guys are. Today we also started hearing the "Pharoah" call for the first time alongside the drone.

For the most part, the emergences have slowed or stopped over the past week. We had one day in the middle of the week where there was a huge rush of emerging cicadas, but that was about it.


Monday May 24, 2004 - OSHA Alert

The cicadas were loudest yet yesterday and today. It was also very hot (in the 90s) and humid both days, something they obviously like. You couldn't hear the birds or anything out on our back deck until after the sun started to set. Melissa has taken to wearing ear protection when she does her gardening. They're not so loud that they'd damage your hearing, but the constant drone does get annoying, and it does give you a headache. I could even hear them through the 6th floor office windows and over the constant blowing of the AC.

I went into my office in Greenbelt today. Greenbelt, like so many other urbanized areas, has had many of the tall native trees replaced by short, stubby, fragile and very invasive pear trees. My wife could easily give you all the reasons why those foreign invasive trees are so bad for the environment, and why native plants are better, so I won't bother with that here. Anyway, the trees have foliage starting at about shoulder height, so you have cicadas flying around at that level. I had one smack me in the back of the head and another perch on my shirt as I went into the office building. At home they are all a good 30' to 50' up in the air, so we can look up and see them, but usually don't have any flying around at head-height. Yet another reason not to remove all the beautiful tall trees when putting in houses and offices.


On the drive in I found out first hand just how huge a splat a cicada makes on your windshield at 75mph. It was huge, about the length and width of the two middle-most fingers on an adult guy, and is one of those nasty sticky splats (with chunks!) that won't come off with the washer fluid. No, I couldn't see the eyeballs in the splat, but I thought that made for a nice little doodle. hehe. Yuck :-)

We're also starting to see a lot more whole dead cicadas on the ground. I suspect it will get like short-round said in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom "It's like walking on fortune cookies!" (or something like that <g>) :-)


Wednesday May 26, 2004 - Crunchy Frog?

I've been working in DC (corner of 19th and M) on a contract for the past couple days. For a place that has almost no unpaved land and only ornamental trees on the sidewalk, the mass of cicadas is amazing.

The cicadas in that part of DC try to crawl the walls on the smooth granite buildings but end up falling to the ground and eventually dying from the impact, being stepped-on, or just from the struggle. The sidewalk and the nooks and crannies of the buildings there are just full of half-living-break-dancing-on-their-back or dead cicadas. It's a bummer, but also pretty gross. If you stand outside for more than a few minutes you'll end up with one on you. That's no big deal. More importantly you need to watch where you walk because the sidewalk is just covered in smushed cicada adults.


Monday May 31, 2004 - Quiet

The temperature has dropped a lot this week, and there have been several small rain showers. The two combined have kept the cicadas down to a low roar.

There is an ever growing pile of half-eaten and otherwise dead adult cicadas growing in all the corners of the yard (and the sidewalks in DC). Just the other day I found a smushed one under the pedal in my car; I believe I picked it up in DC.

There has been no visible tree / shrub damage yet, but I understand that will happen in June / July.


Saturday June 5, 2004 - First Tree Damage


A coworker accidentally stepped on a cicada outside Au Bon Pain in DC the other day. It sounded like someone stepping on potato chips - yuck.

It was pouring outside today; we received over 5" of rain. Nevertheless, Melissa went outside and found the first cicada damage of the season. The female cicada was kind enough to take a bit of the top off of the immature (6-7' tall) Redbud tree that Melissa has planted in the middle of her native plant garden.

We both expected that to happen. At least it was at the top and not the bottom - so far :-) [Ed: The damage to the tree ended up being very minimal]

Other than that, the massive amount of rain and the cool temperatures have together kept things relatively quiet for the past few days.


Saturday June 12, 2004 - Significant Damage Elsewhere, Very Little Here (or "Why to keep your Native Trees")

We took a short trip today up to a native plant nursery. One thing we noticed along the way was all the cicada damage (brown leaves, dead branches) on trees in disturbed areas and in new developments. When we got home, we compared it to our property which has very little cicada damage. Really, other than a couple small sets of dead leaves on our tall oaks and poplars, and the bit of top taken off of our red bud, there is nothing.

If I may hypothesize for a moment, I believe that the lack of damage in our area is based almost entirely on the fact that we live in a rich natural location with lots of 50'-100' tall trees and the birds that inhabit them. Besides the blue jays, woodpeckers, cardinals and song birds on our property, we also have a good number of squirrels, five-lined skinks, snakes, toads, frogs, turtles and other cicada-snacking animals around.

People sometimes ask how we get so much wildlife in our area. The answers are simple. Melissa plants native, animal-friendly plants, and doesn't use any lawn chemicals or other dangerous sprays or powders on our property. If you plant native plants, you don't have to put all that other junk on your property as the plants have already adapted to the conditions in our location. We also try to leave dead trees standing as the woodpeckers love to excavate from them, providing nesting sites for themselves and for other birds. Melissa provides a bird bath or two, and suet to feed the birds. When I get a chance, I create birdhouses and nesting boxes.

So did netting and sprays and other expensive and damaging remedies protect us from the "cicada devastation"? No. It was the fact that we had lots of native trees and plants and the wildlife they harbor. While I don't want to sound too preachy about this, I think this goes to show just another reason why we should leave as many native trees (oaks, poplar, maples; not the invasive pears, Norway maples, trees-of-heaven and other junk trees) as possible on our collective property.

We had no shortage of cicadas; we easily had numbers of them on the high-end of the scale. They just helped to serve a natural purpose and provided a rich bounty for the wildlife in our area. Please think about this the next time you shower your lawn with chemicals, or the next time you see a great wooded area being clear-cut for a new development. While it might take a little more effort to get the heavy equipment in to level the area, you can have a wooded area and development with very little sacrifice on either side.


About Mid June (15-20), the Cicadas pretty much disappeared. There endeth the invasion.

All photos on this page were taken with a Panasonic Lumix FZ-10 on our property in Gambrills, MD.

Additional References


A great page on the Periodical Cicada

Another great page including recordings of the sound they make

Native Trees and Plants

Chesapeake Native Plant Nursery (Where Melissa used to volunteer and now works)


Cicada Desktop Wallpaper / Backgrounds

For desktop backgrounds / wallpaper of Cicadas and other insects I have photographed, click here

1 comment for “The 17 Year Periodical Cicada (Magicicada septendecim)”

  1. Wuaviisays:
    I hate cicadas. There is snotehimg primitive about the way they look that completely creeps me out. When they first started in with the waaaaaahhhhhwahhhhwaaaaahhhh in TX in freaking March or April I could not believe that the reprieve was so short. All day. All night. Mar/April through November. Driving me crazy.A couple of days ago here in CO I heard one and literally shuddered, looked at the tree across the street from which the sounds were emanating and thought about burning it down, too bad if the houses burned too.Hate them. They drive people without PTSD crazy. It's the incessant nature of it, resides in your head 24/7. Much as the sounds of war, I suppose.

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