June 18, 2011 by Joseph C. Neal
Have you been hearing a powerful low hum, like the mother ship has landed, unseen? In waves of rising and falling, a shrill hiss has joined hum. It’s like the earth has taken on new breathing. In and out, up and down, inhale-exhale. Millions of individuals of different species of periodical cicadas are in massed chorus.
We have several species of cicadas, or locusts, and they join us every year in summer. But this summer features emergence of several species of cicadas that happen only every 13 years. It’s the old story of frog turned prince. They live 13 years underground as worm-like larvae, emerge into light transformed to astonishing red-eyed, black-bodied, no-nonsense adults. They sing and mate in massed frenzy and die in a few fantastic weeks. It’s an orgy to the future. The singers of 2024 will come from eggs fertilized in a few sun-lighted weeks this summer. It will all be over by late June.
It’s a chance to learn and experience. In south Fayetteville then out toward Lake Wilson, I’m looking and listening. Red-eyed and orange-winged, periodical cicadas land on my head. A Red-bellied Woodpecker heads toward hiss and hum. Here’s a former rocky hillside pasture now regenerated to oaks, hickories, and lots of eastern red cedar. Periodical cicadas hang upside down under cover of twigs and leaves. Blue Jays bugle from the woods. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo calls CUK CUK CUK COO COO. Cicadas fly back and forth where tree tops join the sun.
In their puffy summer cloud hats, midst hum and waves of shrill hiss, green hills of the Ozarks transform. For a moment I can’t remember where I am. It’s like I’m hallucinating. But I see the familiar visage of a Great Crested Flycatcher at eye level, low and slow, looking methodically up under twigs. There are lots of “flies” here to be sure. Out fly a dozen screeching cicadas as a yellowish female Summer Tanager darts into oak leaves. Fantastic it is, hallucination it is not.
Above hiss and hum, I can hear someone banging around near where I started into the woods. This turns out to be Earl Smith, property owner, looking for pipe. In our lamentable age of suspicion-about-everything, this retired truck driver and mechanical jack-of-all trades is friendly, open, unsuspicious. He says I am welcome while swatting a cicada that has just tried to land on his ear. Behind Mr Smith a hickory trunk is so packed with bugs it is the periodical cicada equivalent of a Saturday afternoon Walmart parking lot.
We talk a bit about the hum. For him, it’s not the mother ship. Rather, something like a big chicken barn. Now at Smith’s suggestion, it does resemble the massed sounds of thousands of white birds in big poultry houses, too. Smith adds, Well maybe more like one of those big turkey houses.