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Magic Cicadas

Periodical cicadas are so fascinating that their Latin genus name is Magicicada.

They arrive in specifically-defined emergences called ‘broods,’ in expected years every 13 or 17 years.  With every emergence come three related species, each making different sounds.  For several weeks in late May and early June, the treetops are full of these exuberant singers, who have emerged after so many years underground to sing, fly, mate, and die. 

Here are the major broods, and roughly when and where they’ll next come out:

This phenomenon only happens in the Eastern United States.  We have no idea why it evolved and why it only happens here, but my favorite hypothesis involves locally uneven receding glaciation leading to unusually fecund population growth, and the prime numbers winning out over a few hundred years or so.  You can read about it in the book.

Brood II arrives in the New York metropolitan area in 2013, and it was last here in 1996.  Since so many people live in this area and there is a lot of good cicada habitat, it always gets a lot of attention.  For more specifics of this brood emergence .see


More detailed brood maps are available at If they come out in your area and you want to report their emergence, click here.

It used to be thought that the reason periodical cicadas come together in great emergences to sing at overwhelming volume was to create a general sense of excitement so the females could find the singing males.

But in 1996, John Cooley and David Marshall discovered that the cicada mating ritual is far more complex than that.  The males begin by singing their species-specific song, but then the females must make a wing-flick sound exactly one third of a second after the male stops to encourage the male to approach.  Then he makes two more specific sounds before mating is complete.  This diagram shows what goes on:

You can read the original paper where this diagram comes from here.

Now watch John Cooley demonstrate the magical wing-flick:

Cooley has had a lot of practice chasing cicada broods for at least two decades.  Here he manages to convince a cicada to attempt to mate with a light switch:

Here is David Attenborough’s depiction of the process from Life in the Undergrowth.

Periodical cicadas are known for high-protein potential. If you want to try eating them, here is one recipe for cicada tacos:

Note that you should use only freshly emerged white nymphs, before they harden and shed their shells.  Do not eat the crunchy winged adults, however tempting they might look.


two tablespoons butter or peanut oil
one and a half pound of cicadas
one teaspoon of chili powder
one tomato, finely chopped
one onion, finely chopped
one and a half table spoon ground pepper
one and a half table spoon cumin
three table spoon taco seasoning mix
one handful cilantro, chopped
taco shells
sour cream
shredded cheddar cheese
shredded lettuce

Cooking instructions:

1. Heat the butter or oil in a frying pan and fry the cicadas for 10 minutes, or until cooked through
2. Remove from pan and roughly chop into 1/4-inch cubes and place back in pan.
3. Add the chopped onions, chilies and tomato, season with salt, and fry for another 5 minutes on medium-low heat.
4. Sprinkle with ground pepper, cumin and oregano to taste.
5. Serve in taco shells and garnish with cilantro, sour cream, lettuce and cheddar cheese.

In the nineteenth century periodical cicadas are said to have saved the Onondaga Nation from a serious famine.  Brood VII cicadas come out to this day only in Onondaga territory.  Next time: 2018.



There are hundreds of Chinese poems  that celebrate cicadas, (though not the periodic kind who only live in the USA). Here is one of the most known:

Here was a thing that cried upon a treetop,
sucking the shrill wind

To wail it back in a long whistling note—
That clasping in its arms
A tapering twig perpetually sighed,
Now shrill as flute, now soft as mandolin;
sometime a piercing cry
Choked at its very uttering, sometimes a cold tune
Dwindled to silence, then suddenly flowered again,
a single note, wandering in strange keys,
An air, yet fraught
With undertone of hidden harmony.

Are you not he, cicada,
of whom I have heard told you can transform
Your body, magically molding it
To new estate? 

Are you not he who, born
Upon the dung-heap, coveted the sky,
Found wings to mount the wind?

Again your voice, cicada
Not grave, not gray, part Lydian,
part Dorian, your tune that,
as suddenly as it began
suddenly ceases.

—Ou-Yang Hsiu, 1056 AD

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