Me and my Brood X cicadas: A story 17 years in the making

Masses of cicadas are in the trees, bushes and lawns around my home. Their rhythmic drumming, chirping, hissing and whirring is so loud it seems at times as if a bunch of car alarms are going off.

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Masses of Brood X cicadas are out in Washington, D.C.

Masses of Brood X cicadas are out in Washington, D.C.

Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

WASHINGTON — On my back patio at this moment are 41 cicadas, either dead, dying or alive. They are male and female and some whose sex I can’t determine since a likely fungal disease — not deadly — caused the back of their bodies, with their sex organs, to drop off.

Hundreds of thousands more cicadas are in the trees, bushes and lawns around my home. The rhythmic drumming, chirping, hissing and whirring of males looking to attract a mate is at times so loud it seems as if a bunch of car alarms are blasting at the same time.

A few days ago I forgot to turn off my home alarm when I opened my door and even though I was in my yard I could not hear it wailing.

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Sometimes the sounds are less noisy and more nuanced, as if the males are wooing the females with concerts of classical music instead of heavy metal.

I’m living in the place where Brood X — known as the Great Eastern Brood — is peaking. Brood X is one of the largest cicada groups in the U.S., emerging every 17 years.

As Sun-Times outdoors writer Dale Bowman noted in a recent column about cicadas, some of them have appeared in the Chicago area this spring. Brood X may extend to parts of eastern Illinois. A different brood of cicadas will dig their way out of their underground homes in Chicago in 2024. Consider this column an advance report of what to expect.

The ground all around my house is pocketed with hundreds of holes – the evidence of the cicadas drilling up from the tunnels where they have been living since before I bought my house. Who knew.

At first, I had an attitude. There was an ick factor. After all, we are talking about insects.

I changed, leaned into this, once I read up on cicadas and learned they don’t bite, invade homes or carry disease. And any eggs they leave behind in the ground — I’ll worry about that in 17 years. So I’m here to report on my own metamorphosis about these critters with the fire engine red eyes and filigreed translucent wings.

A cicada, missing the back half of his body.

A cicada, missing the back half of his body.

Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

Living these weeks with cicadas as they rush through their short life above the earth I see as a privilege. I’m witnessing an incredible biological phenomenon — all right outside my home.

Let me tell you about the birds around my house. They laugh at my bird feeder now, though I know they’ll be back when Brood X dies off in a few weeks.

But for now, why eat my birdseed when you can dine at will on fresh cicadas? The birds are so plump, I’ve never seen them like this.

The rabbits are fatter. So are the squirrels.

I bought a net to protect the most fragile bush outside my home because the females lay their eggs in the branches, and that can do some damage. Some in my neighborhood wrapped their shrubs fully in cheesecloth.

All I have to do is be careful when I open my doors. I am startled at times when one crashes on me.

You may have seen how President Joe Biden warned, “Watch out for the cicadas,” after swatting one off his neck before boarding Air Force One for England. A cicada invasion of exterior parts of the press charter plane delayed that flight for more than six hours.

My neighbor’s tree is a loud cicada haven. They fly all around that tree, like a scene from a benign version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

The empty pupal cases the cicadas leave behind as they grow stick to leaves and are annoying. I’m careful walking not to step on them since they don’t jump away from approaching humans. Some cicadas, I observed on my long walks, died while mating. It’s easy to spot the butt-to-butt attached couples who overdid it. But after 17 years, I get it. There must have been, for some, an excessive amount of pent-up demand.

Cicadas on a tree in Washington, D.C.

Cicadas on a tree in Washington, D.C.

Lynn Sweet/Sun-Times

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