Do you hear what I hear?
Cicadas: morning, noon, and (almost) night.
These are the Dog Day cicadas: the annual species who show up every year.
Their little husks in the yard and their big songs in the trees are signs of high summer, and to me, of Home.
But more importantly, they are a sign that one bit of our world is working as it should.
If you don’t hear what I hear, can you go out and try? Listen for the buzzes and grindings and trills where the trees are: mature, native trees like Sugar maples, elms, red-cedars.
For maximum effect, listen at dusk on a Greenway or near some woods, or under fat hackberries in a shady neighborhood, where the combined cicada volume can almost rattle your bones. We’re talking Spinal Tap “eleven.”
This is the year I figure out cicadas: who is here and what they sing.
Below are the three I vote Easiest to Identify by Ear: the Morning, the Scissor Grinder, and the Robinson.
1) The Morning Cicada is, appropriately, the first cicada to sing in the morning.
It makes a fast rattle: Shicka-shicka-shicka-shicka-shicka.
I call it the Salt-Shaker.
Imagine you are in a hurry, but need to season an industrial vat of stew.
The shaker starts, gets louder, and after maybe 7 seconds of salt, decrescendos and stops. And then starts again.
Morning cicadas don’t wait for bright sun. On my daily pre-dawn walks, they turn on as street lamps turn off: at “civil twilight.”
Yesterday, when the official dawn was 6:15am, I heard the first Morning cicada at 5:59am.
Another common name is Swamp cicada—and by late August, Nashville feels like a swamp—but to me, they’re Salt Shakers.
Listen: Swamp / Morning Cicada song recording (from “Songs of Insects”).
2) The Scissor-grinder Cicada makes dramatic pulses that sound like . . . a scissor-grinder.
Imagine sharpening a blade against a whetstone, and easing up on the pressure after every revolution: ZZEEuh, ZZEEuh, ZZEEuh, ZZEEuh, ZZEEuh…
Each song lasts about 30 revolutions of the grinding wheel, and usually quickens near the end, but sometimes the end isn’t the end: the singer will buzz softly for a few seconds until he starts a new round of ZZees.
Listen: Scissors-Grinder Cicada recording.
3) Robinson’s Cicada
Apologies to Mr. Robinson, but this is a terrible name for a cicada. We need descriptive terms, not random surnames.
So I propose a better one: the Socket Wrench.
RrrrrrRAR. [pause] RrrrrrRAR. [pause] RrrrrrRAR. [pause] RrrrrrRAR.
Unlike the Scissor-grinder, there’s a beat of rest after every beat of buzz.
In musical terms, think of a 2/4 measure with the downbeat a growl and the upbeat a rest.
“What’s a socket wrench?,” Michael asked, which alerted me to the fact that not everyone grew up with socket wrenches, so I showed him one. The ratcheting gear is unidirectional: it makes a rattle when you push the handle, but is silent when you pull it back to engage the fastener (nut, bolt).
Another good name would be Gragger Cicada, but only if you know a gragger as the ratcheting noisemaker it wouldn’t be Purim without.
Listen: Robinson’s Cicada recording.
I’ve counted five additional species in our not-huge backyard, and all eight can be heard at the “Songs of Insects” site.
What do Cicadas need?
What do cicadas need? They need the same native habitat Nashville’s birds and butterflies and bees need. They don’t need Mosquito Joe or “weed-block fabric.” They don’t need concrete poured from property line to property line. They don’t need backyard Detached Accessory Dwelling Units. They don’t need the typical landscaping that “replaces” native shade trees with exotic Crepe Myrtle and ginkgo.
How long do Annual Cicadas live?
After a male’s song attracts a female, the female deposits teeny eggs in a groove she’s cut in a twig. Nymphs hatch, sip sap in the groove, then drift to the soil. They’ll stay underground for 2 years, sipping sap from roots until they emerge to molt one last time and become winged adults. Grownups only live a few weeks, don’t bite or sting, and though they do suck sap from trees, don’t harm anything. They aren’t even considered an agricultural pest, which is saying something.
Nashville’s periodical cicadas follow the same lifecycle, but instead of 2 years underground will spend 13. Brood XIX appeared in 1998 and 2011, and will return in May 2024, although there won’t be as many, because we’ve lost a lot of trees and gained a lot of concrete.
Cicadas in my Nashville yard (so far):
Swamp / Morning Cicada / Neotibicen tibicen tibicen
Scissor-Grinder Cicada / Neotibicen pruinosus pruinosus
Robinson’s Annual Cicada / Neotibicen robinsonianus
Lyric Cicada / Neotibicen lyricen (no pulse, but continuous trill)
Linne’s Cicada / Neotibicen linnei
SE Dog Day Cicada / Neotibicen davisi davisi
Dog Day Cicada / Neotibicen canicularis
NE Dusk Singing Cicada / Megatibicen auletes (dee-dee-dee at dusk)
“Songs of Insects” is a great site for learning cicada songs, as well as katydid, cricket, and grasshopper songs. All the cicadas above are featured on the Cicada pages.
The site’s description of “Dog Days” is wrong, however: it says the Dog Days are when the Dog star / Sirius returns to the night sky, but the Dog Days of summer are when Sirius is overhead in the daytime sky. Right now, in late August, Sirius rises in the East before the sun, but you’ll need an unobstructed view of the horizon to see it. My neighbor’s house is in the way, but Orion (which Sirius follows across the sky) is big and bright over her roofline.
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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River and other journals.