Cicadas, oh, my!

Imagine a hundred maracas shaken at once. If they were buzzing as well, and if they reached a hundred decibels or more, you’d have the marvelous sound of the cicadas. Then imagine they take cues from one another, their chorus of sound swelling to overpowering for fifteen or twenty seconds, then dying away, only to start again.

They are male Tibicen cicadas, singing during the midday heat in northern Arizona. Tibicens have a lifespan of only a few years at most, and they emerge every summer to seek their mates and sing their deafening songs. Males contract a ribbed abdominal tissue, called a tymbal, to make their sounds. Females emit clicks but do not sing in chorus like the males. The species here in Prescott looks to me like T. cultriformis. (If you can ID them exactly, please let me know.)

After mating and laying eggs, they die. Which means that if you walk among trees during August, you’re likely to find one or more bodies. Returning to my hotel today, I found this one on the path under cottonwood trees, and I spent some magical moments getting to know a species I’d never before examined up close—and that turned out to be a whole lot more colorful than I’d expected. The first beautiful surprise was the green on their wings.


Then there were the eyes protruding from the head. I wonder what the world looks to eyes that are made like this. I could have sworn they were still regarding me watchfully.

Note too the mouth parts in the center, made for sipping and sucking at tree juice. The cicada is a liquid feeder.


But most exquisite were the wings. In the sunlight they glittered, a bejeweled fabric stretched on a frame of the finest bronze threads. The texture of the wings was crinkly but not brittle, the tissue perfectly transparent.



9 Responses to Cicadas, oh, my!

  1. Hystery says:August 25, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Aren’t they marvelous? Our family was just outside admiring one we rescued from the cats and I’m listening to their song right now as I type. It is a sound that means summer to me.

  2. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:August 25, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    And SO loud! The species here is the loudest of all the cicadas. Someone described it to me today as a tile saw going through brick. It certainly is that loud, but I think a whole lot more pleasant! When I got to Prescott I fairly dived under the trees just to be immersed in it. Now that I’m home again, I miss it.

  3. Mayme Kratz says:August 27, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Such amazing little creatures. I live in Phoenix and Have been hoping to come to Prescott to collect their wings after they are no longer living. I use them in my art work and am in desperate need of a bunch of them. Do you think they might still be around next week?

  4. Liz says:August 28, 2009 at 6:45 am

    Beautiful photos. Thanks for the info on how they make the sound. I’ve been wondering about that with our cicadas here in NE Oregon. They’re deafening sometimes, but it’s such a comforting, delightful sound.

  5. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 3, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Mayme, I hope you made it to Prescott to find some cicada wings. I checked out your artwork; it’s amazing! I would love to see what cicada wings inspire you to do. Liz, I’m with you: I find the cicada sound as comforting as a warm bath.

  6. Lené Gary says:September 28, 2009 at 6:50 am

    Hi Priscilla,

    Your posts show share such joy and wonder in the natural world. I’m happy to have found your beautiful blog through the nature blog network. I hope you’ll keep us posted on the publication date of your book.


    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 28, 2009 at 5:37 pm

      Welcome, Lené, and thanks for cheering on the book!

  7. Bob Jacobson says:October 8, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Yes, this species is Tibicen cultriformis (Davis). Are there particular areas of Prescott where they are especially common. I’m on the East Coast, but I’d like to come to Prescott to see this species alive.

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:October 8, 2009 at 5:56 pm

      Thanks, Bob, for the confirmation! They’re common in the trees all over town. Wherever there is a patch of trees, especially cottonwoods, the noise is deafening. The cicadas may be all over the region for all I know, but Prescott is the only place I visit, so it’s the place I know. I do hope you get a chance to travel to northern Arizona to see and hear them.