Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Somewhat Familiar Face

Where I grew up in (and later right outside of) Detroit, MI, the local cicadas were the annual, “dog-day” cicadas whose calls signaled the end of summer and the approach of the school year and fall. They had a hypnotic eeeeeooooo-eeeeeeeoooo call that seemed to suggest the inexorable change of seasons and the passage of time.

Here in DC the cicadas are also pretty predictable summer noisemakers—none of this periodical nonsense, thank you very much—but these cicadas make more of a revving sound as they lure their mates, and they arrive much earlier in the summer with no regard for their potential usefulness as metaphorical heralds.

Nonetheless, since it’s always rarer to see them than hear them, I like to observe evidence of their presence, even if it’s evidence of their immature, younger selves. I spotted this husk—the old shell of the cicada’s nymph life—clinging as with a life of its own to a tree along my route home from work, and it was at once so familiar to me from childhood and so damn bizarre that I had to take a picture of it.

Cicadas are fascinating creatures whose life-cycle patterns differ widely from our own: they live underground as flightless nymphs for several years (sometimes even 13-17 years, as in the case of periodical cicadas—but we’re not talking about them) before tunneling up to the surface, crawling up a tree or shrub, breaking free of their nymph shell, and become winged, siren-calling adults for just a brief (but sex-filled) one- or two-month season. Before they die, females lay eggs inside of twigs; then young hatch out, burrow into the ground, and the cycle begins all over again.

I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere about how some humans, too, spent the vast majority of their lives sexually immature and in the dark—but seriously, imagine spending most of your life as a juvenile. Would all cicada books be young-adult literature?

The great thing about cicadas is that, as with fireflies, their cycles make an impression on, and create associations with, our cycles, and for those of us who grew up with them, summer wouldn’t be the same without them.

If you miss the cicadas of your youth or just have an unnatural interest in noisy insects, you can visit this page from the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology to hear the calls of a whole bunch of different kinds of cicadas. (For those of you from southeast Michigan, I think the eeeeeoooo guys are Tibicen pruinosus.)

Are there insects, or other “everyday” fauna, that mean summer to you?

[a periodical cicada in NJ, about which
I will not speak further]

{A note: I do write all text and take all pictures. Please do not reproduce either without my permission.}


Anca said...

Ah, but climate change has caught up with us here in the North (s. Michigan). The cicadas now start at the beginning of July--no longer heralds. We watched one vibrate its noisy way through the evening air with two sparrows and a male cardinal in its wake, all three trying to get a live-wire meal while the cicada was flying for its life. We didn't see the outcome.

NHF said...

Oh, I LOVED that visit to see the periodicals in NJ with you :) All's been a bit complicated with me, but I think of you so often and lurk here nearly constantly to enjoy your gorgeous pictures and hear your voice in your words. Many hugs.

pookergirl said...

I moved to SW Lower Michigan in 1987 and I have NEVER heard the Tibicen pruinosus cicada call in Michigan, EVER, not once. That is the wee-ooo, weee-ooo species they have in the South. I grew up in Kansas and that sound is ingrained into my brain, something I will never forget and miss terribly. Every time I go back to visit Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas or even my mom in York, Pennsylvania, I am lucky enough to hear it again, and I savor every second of it in the evenings there. I was hoping as it has seemed to get warmer and warmer in Michigan over the years, the 3 kinds that make the wee-ooo, weee-ooo sound would migrate this way but no such luck yet. Still holding out hope though.

Olivia V. Ambrogio said...

@pookergirl: How interesting, and what a shame that you've never encountered these guys in SW Michigan. All the cicadas in the link were apparently collected in MI, and I know I grew up with the weee-ooo cicadas myself; maybe they're only in the eastern part of the state? I'm sorry you've missed them all these years. If you want to take a trip to Detroit sometime in the summer, though, you may be able to relive the pleasant sounds of your childhood.

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