Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Pharaoh of the Cicadas!

If you live in the eastern half of Ohio, you’ve read or heard about the Brood V emergence year and have quite possibly experienced it yourself.  Not surprisingly, I’ve been out with the cicadas as much as possible. I want to learn and document as much as I can, as 17 years will be a very long time from now.

Some people love them and have absolutely embraced this emergence. Some people feel they are a major nuisance. Many people have commented on just how LOUD these choruses of thousands can be. 

But do you know that you may be listening to two (and sometimes possibly three) different species with different songs? The two most common species – Magicicada septendecim and Magicicada cassini – have very different songs, and I’d like to share them both with you so that you’ll know which one you’re hearing and which one is more likely to be the one you might think is too loud. I won’t be writing about this again for another 17 years, so here’s what I’ve learned as of now. 

If you’re hearing a cicada chorus up high in the trees and can't quite figure out how close or far they are, you are likely hearing Magicicada septendecim.

People describe the song as sounding like, “PHA………raoh! PHA…….raoh!” There’s a sustained pitch at around 1400 Hz, followed by a drop off in pitch and volume level at the end. 

Cicadas make their sound with a vibrating a membrane called a tymbal. If you’d like to read more about how this works, there’s an interesting article entitled “Secrets of the Cicada’s Sound” in the 5-30-13 issue of Science Daily (based on materials from the Acoustical Society of America).

While a female cicada’s abdomen is filled with eggs, the male’s abdomen is filled with air that resonates, amplifying the sound created by the membrane’s vibration. Were you to watch one singing, you’d see his abdomen lift up with the loud “PHA….” part of the song, then drop as the pitch and volume drop with the “…raoh.”

When there’s an entire chorus of these cicadas, however, you probably won’t hear the softer second “syllable” of “Pharaoh” – just the sustained first syllable. The result sounds like a single, sustained pitch with no space whatsoever.

When a few individuals are closer, you may hear both syllables during the sustained wall of sound emanating from all the other singers behind them.

As is true for the other Magicicada species, Magicicada septendecim has more than one song. There’s the calling song we typically hear, and there are also courtship songs. You may hear one that is like the standard “Pharaoh” song, but faster and with no gaps between songs. Another courtship song is a rapid “Pha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ah.” The details of the courtship songs can be found at here. I haven’t been able to get recordings that adequately isolate the courtship songs yet, as there are always too many individuals singing the primary song all around them!

As a musician, I’ve noticed that the first pitch – the “Pha…”  - is often an E. I thought I would notice more fluctuation with temperature than I have so far, but E has been the most common starting pitch I’ve heard. The range I’ve noticed has been between D# and F#, with the higher pitches being at higher temperatures and more sun. Still, the overall range is not as great as I thought I’d find.

At first, I seemed to be hearing a lot of descending perfect 5ths (or very close to it), which sounds like this:

More recently, however, I’ve heard a great many descending major 6ths – an interval that’s a whole step larger. That's the one you heard in the first recording of the post. I’ve heard a few minor 6ths and a couple of diminished 5ths, but the P5th and M6th are the main intervals – and both sound consonant to our ears.

Occasionally, I’ll hear some individuals begin on slightly different starting pitches. Here’s one individual who called attention to himself..

...and cicadas singing at different pitches. The lower pitch at the end of the track seems to have been two males interacting; they quickly flew off. 

While males do the singing, females are not silent as we might think. They cue the male with timed wing flicks to indicated their receptiveness or lack thereof. (See "female signals" at

I’ve been able to observe the entire above-ground process of their life cycle. As many – but not all – of you know, they live underground for 17 years, dining on sap from tree roots and growing larger. Shortly before they emerge, they create exit holes that are our first indication of where they are located.

When the soil temperature reaches 64 degrees, they can finally make their move. I was very fortunate to watch this miracle at the Geauga Park District’s Big Creek Park just north of Chardon and east of Cleveland. The ground seemed to move as hundreds of nymphs around me pulled themselves out of their holes and began to climb! 

Once they reached a location where they could split their nymphal skins and emerge into adulthood, I was able to watch their almost magical transformation.

Adults need to harden sufficiently to fly and sing; singing begins 4-6 days after emergence.   

Their time is limited to 4-6 weeks, however, as the only purpose of this phase of their 17-year lives is to mate and lay eggs.

This pair of septendecim was attached in the middle of a rather busy hike-and-bike path. Another pair had already been crushed nearby, so I decided to rescue them and move them to somewhere more appropriate.

The females oviposit (lay eggs) in branches…

…and the eggs will hatch several weeks later. The tiny nymphs will drop to the ground, burrow underneath, and will not be seen until 2033.

We may only have two or possibly three weeks left, so listen while you can and observe these gentle beauties while the opportunity remains. I’ll follow up shortly with the other species so you’ll know which is which. Time is short – I’ll hurry! In the meantime, you can see the reports of Brood V sightings and hearings at the map


  1. Awesome Lisa. What a great exposé on these lovely and fascinating creatures.

  2. great article! some of the photos are so beautiful. awesome sound-clips. thanks so much for sharing.