Ye Olde Journal of Magicicada Encounters

May/June, 1989: //flashback// My first encounter with the periodical cicada. It is in an area called Holland Bottoms near Jacksonville, Arkansas. I am 10 years old at the time, so I know only what they are and why they were singing. I will later learn that they are 13 year cicadas of Brood XXIII. At this time I am only about 90% sure that they are 13, not 17, year cicadas. Period. I am overcome by the intensity of the sound, which is a shrill, ear piercing buzz which fades in and out. At age 10, catching insects is my pastime, and I catch as many as I can in the amount of time I'm there. I'll leave to your imagination just how many that might be. For some reason my parents do not say I've got too many, but we do leave within an hour or so of arriving. This venture will be repeated a few more times over the next 3 weeks, until I am devastated one day in mid June to return to Holland Bottoms and find that the insects have vanished without a trace.

March, 1998: I am now 19 years old, and although I am no longer the avid critter collector I once was, my interest in animals never left me. But by now that deafening swarm of red-eyed, orange-winged insects at Holland Bottoms is a pleasant but distant memory. Then one night I get to thinking about cicadas and realize that the periodicals are due back in only four years. I think my interest in them re-incarnated itself sometime that night. Over the next week or so, I start researching the Magicicada and fill in as many gaps in my cicada knowledge as I can. In doing so, I learned what Brood I saw in Holland Bottoms nine years ago. And the chorus I remember hearing there best matched Magicicada tredecassini, which happens to be the loudest and most abundant of the three 13-year species. But what really catches my attention is the fact that Arkansas has not one but TWO Broods, and the other one, Brood XIX, is due this spring! I make note that there are three separate species of 13 year cicada, and that each has its own call and chorus. I make it a point to try and find all three if and when I see the cicadas again.

late April, 1998: I send some emails out and make a few phone calls to area sources that might remember the Brood's last emergence. I want some specific locations of known cicada emergences in 1985. I come up with northern Sharp County and central Independence County. Both in Arkansas. The latter is not too far from my home, so I have no doubts that I will be there come mid May...

May 12, 1998: Satisfied that I have some good locations to scope out and realizing that the cicadas should be making their way towards daylight by now, the trip is planned for day after tomorrow...

May 14, 1998: Me, my 3 brothers, and my mom [any self-respecting guy would let his mom come, right? :-)] set out for Independence County, Arkansas. Not having the name of an actual town in this roughly 200-square-mile region, we decide the first place we'd like to check for a population of periodical cicadas would be a town called Locust Grove (I can't imagine why, can you?). We know that periodical cicadas like areas along creeks and rivers best, and the closest region of this kind is an area called Johnson Hollow. It's down a dirt road, so folks probably won't get too mad if we drive kind of slow with the windows down. Listening... We haven't heard anything yet, but all at once I spy a black rat snake crossing the road. Needing a little adventure in this so far eventless trip, I jump out and chase it down. The snake, however, wasn't too happy to see me and left a fragrance on my hand that just had to be washed off. Anyone who's ever had experience with snakes knows what I'm talking about. I got a nice rip in my "Nike" shirt from a barbed wire fence during the chase, too. =) I get back in the van, snake in tow, and luckily we arrive at a creek. Now, smelling of snake, I had forgotten the significance of a creek in this expedition. I just needed a good place to wash my hands off. Nevertheless, we get out, and no sooner did we all get good and out of the van than we all five heard chirping. Cicada-like chirping that could only mean one thing. I go ahead and wash up because, well, one does. Then we all follow the chirps and begin to see "cicada shells," or empty nymphal skins. Hundreds of them. All of them low, clinging to grass blades, weeds, and the lower parts of tree trunks. A closer look in the grass reveals that most of the adults are not far from their vacated skins. They are newly hatched; fully colored, but their wings are still soft. Hiding in the tall grass must hide them from birds. But I have yet to see a single bird, anyway. Of course the ones that molted on the trees have probably climbed on up a ways. They are just like I remember them: glossy black with bright red eyes and orange wing veins. It's not too loud here though. Most of the adults are still unable to sing. It is after sunset now, but still light. The few cicadas that were singing have stopped, I have managed to collect specimens of two of the possible three species, and we are making our way back to the van. The ground is covered with small holes; the tunnels used by the cicadas to finally leave the ground. Some shallow digging near some holes yields 3 nymphs, which we put in a coffee can with some moist dirt. We want to get them home without them beginning to dry out, as that seems to trigger the molting process. Once home, I prop up a small tree branch for the nymphs and allow them to climb it. One of them never completes its molt. Another gets out of its nymphal skin, but its wings don't turn out right. The third one, thankfully, turns out perfect.

May 15, 1998: The next morning, The cicada that made the successful molt turns out to be the third species. Amazingly, I've collected all three in one trip. Luck was certainly on my side yesterday!

May 16, 1998: Because once is never enough, we decide to set out again. This time we continue north to check out the more northern site, Sharp County. This time, town names are mentioned: Ash Flat, Evening Shade, Hardy, and Cherokee Village. But it turns out the latter information would not have been necessary. As we pass Evening Shade, cicada singing is audible from the road. The areas of cicadas are patchy, but close enough together to let you know you were not hearing things the time before. Despite temptation to stop, we continue through Ash Flat, and finally to Cherokee Village. We were not disappointed at all. Cherokee Village was thoroughly infested. Our first stop there was a Beach Club on the Spring River called the Arkansas Sheriffs' Girls Ranch. I don't know how it got its name because we never did find any girls. :-) Only members are supposed to stop here, but no one's around so we proceed to make ourselves welcome. What we find is a Magicicada infestation very similar to what I remember from Holland Bottoms. Cicadas number in the thousands, and the sound, the same shrill buzzing that rises and falls in intensity, is loud and unmistakeable. We make a couple more stops at tree-filled areas and find similar activity. When we venture away from the river, though, we are in for a surprise. We heard cicadas singing all right, but the sounds we hear are nothing like what we heard at the beach clubs. In contrast to the shrill buzz of what we confirm to be Magicicada tredecassini, or "cassini," this sound is an intense, low whirring or roaring that is unique and unforgettable. The sound is not really loud but at the same time it is intense and will make you completely lose your train of thought if you're exposed to it for very long. While never truly deafening even up close, the sound can carry for at least a mile. This is the largest, and second most abundant species, Magicicada tredecim or "decim." Satisfied that we're at "ground zero," we settle into a motel for the night. But our motel is bordered by forest, and temptation gets the best of me. In the dark, I feel compelled to look for emerging nymphs. I find plenty of them. With the aid of a flashlight, I watch a few of them of them squeeze out of their old skins and grow their wings. Then I finally go to bed.

May 17, 1998: I wake up very early, around dawn, so as to miss nothing. The cicadas had stopped singing by 7:00 last night, and now as of 6:30 a.m., the first chirps of the new day are beginning to reach our ears. I will learn more today about the periodical cicada first hand than I ever did from any book or website. The first thing that I notice as the day progresses is that unlike annual cicadas, each species sings more than one song. Keep in mind that not only are the cicadas numerous, but they are easily accessible for a close look to determine species. What's more they often congregate by species, so you can usually tell who is singing what. Each species has two different types of vocalization. A call and a chorus. The call is a 3-5 second phrase that is apparently used to "get the group together." They almost seem to call other males with this, because as the day wears on, more cicadas join in until the calls blend into an almost organized chorus. The chorus attracts females, and as the males find mates, their singing finally ceases. This doesn't quiet the chorus at all, though. Not all males find mates their first day out, and for the first week or so, thousands more cicadas will emerge from the ground each night to replace their silenced companions. Another difference I notice between the Magicicada and the annual cicada is that an individual male periodical cicada is not nearly as loud as an individual annual. It is the enormous number of periodicals that makes the chorus loud. So if annual cicadas emerged in the volume that periodicals do, the sound would be many times greater, if you can imagine that. We learn this as the expedition includes many different areas of Cherokee Village and Hardy. We find Hardy extremely infested, and as we walk through the residential area, where every street is called "Route 6" for some reason, we amuse ourselves watching people freak out as cicadas land on various parts of their bodies. Back in Cherokee Village, we prepare to go back home. But first we have to go back to one certain spot that I saw would be really lively this afternoon. That would be at the dead end of a street called "Skyline" in kind of a clearing. There we find cicadas swarming the trees, which are no more than 10 feet tall. We are able to observe all three species, even the elusive Magicicada tredecula ("decula"), singing, mating, and laying eggs. I learn first hand both the calling and chorus sounds of each species.

Magicicada tredecassini ("cassini"):

  • Call is a 1 to 3-second trilling, followed by a loud buzz that quickly rises in pitch then drops off.
  • Chorus is a steady, synchronized, shrill buzzing that is intermittently louder and softer.

    Magicicada tredecim ("decim"):

  • Call is kind of a low-pitched croaklike whistle which holds steady in pitch and intensity for about 2 seconds, then drops off.
  • Chorus is a steady whirring sound, much like the sound of a spinning Weed Eater wire. Embedded in the sound can be heard short whistle-like sounds that drop off in pitch.

    Magicicada tredecula ("decula"):

  • Call is a 15 to 20 second series of chirps, very similar to the sound of a lawn sprinkler.
  • Chorus is similar to cassini, but intensity holds steady. It is less sustained and ragged, sounding more like an idling chainsaw.

    Having filled our brains pretty much to capacity with cicada knowledge, we embark on the 70-mile trip home. I now have ample specimens of each species.

    May 18-20, 1998: The cicadas try to call and sing even in captivity, and separating them by order of cassini in one container and decim and decula in another makes it easier to further observe and confirm their sounds.

    May 26, 1998: My uncle invites me and my family to spend a few days in his deer camp near Salem, Arkansas...

    May 27-29, 1998: ...and we run into the Magicicadas once again. Again all three species are present, but by now it is obvious that they are on the decline. By now we more casually refer to decim cicadas as "UFOs," cassini cicadas as "car alarms," and decula cicadas as "lawn sprinklers." Fittingly enough, we've named them for their song. Singing is still loud, don't get me wrong, but nothing like what we heard and saw in Cherokee Village and Hardy 11 days earlier. Another sign of the end is that females can be seen laying eggs everywhere. However, this time we're on vacation not to research, but to play around. The Spring River is our favorite spot, and as we walk along the bank, we cannot help but notice the smell. Not too overwhelming, but definitely there. The smell of dead cicadas, the ones whose mission is complete. They litter the ground everywhere, to the point to where we begin to stop taking note of them. Again I collect specimens, mostly decim because they seem to be the most abundant here. The only place we visit that does not seem to be on the decline is Myatt Creek. Cicadas can still be seen swarming, and the number of dead is not so great. We know that it's only a matter of time, though.

    May 29, 1998: Reluctantly, we leave the wilderness one last time. I know this will be my last contact with the Magicicada, but I'm not so sad this time. I got much of what I wanted this time around, and I always have some [lame] home movies if I ever want them. I will now say farewell to the cicadas of Brood 19, and remember that their offspring will grace north Arkansas with their presence once again in 2011. More importantly, I will keep in the back of my mind that Brood 23 will make its showing in 2002, and I will have a population to observe less than 10 miles from my home. And for the time being, I have my captive specimens!

    May 31, 1998: All of my captive cicadas are dead. The 1998 emergence is officially over.

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